The leaders of the Southern University and Louisiana Community and Technical College systems said Wednesday the state needs to spend more on need-based aid for students.

Ray Belton, president and chancellor of the Southern University System, said he supports the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, even though only 1.5 percent of his students get the tuition aid.

Belton told the TOPS Task Force that TOPS is an incentive for students to do well in school.

"But I have to tell you that we would ask this committee to give greater attention to need-based aid," he said.

Monty Sullivan, president of the LCTCS System, made the same point.

Sullivan noted that the state spends nearly $300 million for about 50,000 TOPS recipients of the state's roughly 200,000 college students.

"What do we do for the other 150,000?" Sullivan asked the panel.

He said the $26 million spent on need-based aid is "paltry," especially amid rising costs because of major cuts in state aid for higher education since 2008.

Sullivan said Louisiana needs a statewide financial aid policy.

He said it should focus on the role of merit aid, need-based assistance, what  student population is targeted, return on investment and the impact of the spending.

"We just need to pause and ask what is our financial aid policy?" Sullivan said.

Louisiana allocates 91.1 percent of college aid on the basis of merit compared with 8.9 percent where need is at least one factor, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Merit financial aid is based on academic and other factors.

Need-based assistance depends on family income.

TOPS recipients have most of their tuition paid for by the state.

Students have to earn at least a 2.5 grade point average on their high school core curriculum, and at least a 20 on the ACT, to qualify.

The ACT is a test of college readiness.

Under questioning, Belton said the key impediment to students in the Southern University System landing TOPS is achieving the required ACT score.

He said black students score an average of 16 nationally on the exam.

A perfect score is 36.

LSU is spending $17.4 million this year on need-based aid, said Dan Layzell, vice president for finance and administration and chief financial officer.

That includes about $16 million for 2,200 students who get aid called the Pelican Promise, which is aimed at ensuring talented students have access to the school.

Families of those students have an average income of $17,400 per year, Layzell said.

Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, called TOPS a solid investment.

Henderson also said the state needs a financial aid policy "to develop people from all populations, from all demographics."

The gathering was the fourth by the 10-member task force, which is divided equally between House and Senate members.

One of the issues is whether the state should spend more for students based on financial need.

Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennings and chairman of the task force, questioned whether TOPS is merit-based aid since the academic requirements are modest.

Whether the task force will recommend major changes in TOPS to the full Legislature is unclear.

The 2018 regular session begins on March 12.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.