As Louisiana struggles with TOPS funding, bills to reform program pass first hurdle in Senate committee

Advocate staff photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — Incoming freshman and transfer students head to their next STRIPES activity Tuesday, August 11, 2015 on Louisiana State University’s campus.

Raising the required grade point average for high school students to qualify for TOPS would have a significant impact on the number of students who get the aid, according to figures provided Thursday morning to a legislative committee.

Under current rules, students have to earn at least a 2.50 on their high school core curriculum for the most common form of the aid, called TOPS Opportunity.

Raising that to 2.75 would reduce the number of eligible students by 19 percent, data supplied to the 10-member TOPS Task Force shows.

Boosting the minimum GPA to 3.00 would trim the list of eligible high school students by 44 percent, according to figures from the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.

TOPS stands for Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. Those who qualify have most of their college tuition financed by the state.

However, the task force is considering a wide range of changes in the program, which is used by about 52,000 students.

Earlier this year the state House approved a bill that would raise the minimum TOPS GPA requirement to 2.75.

That bill, by state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, died in the Senate Education Committee, in part because Senate leaders wanted a wide-ranging study of TOPS.

Some lawmakers contend the state should increase the minimum score on the ACT, a test of college readiness.

The current requirement is 20 out of a possible 36.

Raising that to 21 would trim the list of students eligible by 27 percent, according to LOSFA figures.

Increasing it to 22 would remove 55 percent of qualified students, based on the high school graduating class of 2016-17.

Raising both the minimum GPA and ACT would have an even bigger impact.

Requiring high school students to earn both a 2.75 GPA and 21 on the ACT would trim the ranks by 42 percent.

Raising the GPA to 3.00 and the ACT to 22 would chop the list of eligible students by 80 percent.

Lawmakers were given detailed breakdowns on what impact the changes would have, including by House and Senate districts.

The meeting Thursday was supposed to be the final information gathering session.

"We know a whole lot more about TOPS than when we started," said Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennings and chairman of the task force. "Now we need to prepare a report."

Morrish, who is also chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he plans to hold one meeting in December and two in January to try to develop a consensus on possible changes.

He said he plans to meet individually with task force members.

The committee's recommendations are due to the Legislature by Feb. 15.

The 2018 regular legislative session begins on March 12.

Other changes under review would extend the little-used TOPS Tech by two years; provide TOPS students with a flat amount rather than one linked to tuition and require students who lose TOPS to repay the money.

TOPS is costing the state about $292 million this year, one of the reasons it is under scrutiny amid state budget problems.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.