What you need to know about upcoming changes to once-untouchable TOPS _lowres

Louisiana House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, left, speaks with Rep. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales, ahead of Gov. John Bel Edwards' budget cut presentation to the committee, Tuesday, April 12. Edwards is proposing to close a $750 million budget shortfall with cuts to the TOPS free college tuition program, safety net hospitals for the poor and public schools. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

TOPS has long been a sacred cow of the Louisiana Legislature. Though many have tried, few have succeeded in passing substantive changes that would limit the scope of the statewide scholarship program.

But this Legislature is on its way to passing an unprecedented number of changes for TOPS. While the measures are relatively mild, it’s the first time the program has been changed to limit its growth, rather than expanding eligibility to add more students.

“We’ve never passed two bills on TOPS unless it was to expand it,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit statewide advocacy group. “Politically, it really is difficult to change.”

This Legislature has been far more agreeable to amending the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, largely because of the looming pressure of drastic reductions in the state budget and because the program’s founders are supporting changes to protect its future.

The state budget is still $600 million short of the amount needed to properly fund hospitals, higher education and public safety in the upcoming year without making significant changes. Meanwhile, the cost of TOPS has grown rapidly in recent years, reaching $300 million next year. In 2001, the program cost the state about $100 million.

For the first time, TOPS is facing the possibility of not being fully funded going into an academic year, meaning eligible students would either not receive their scholarships or else receive a reduced award. Students and their families would have to pay the remaining tuition and costs.

Even with that pressure, the Legislature still made only modest changes in TOPS that will yield marginal savings to the state budget. Many lawmakers and educational advocates say they don’t see the political will to curb TOPS beyond what was done in the current session.

“I don’t think we’re going to see much more in the way of changes to TOPS,” said Erwin, adding he’d prefer to see higher academic requirements and a better balance of dollars directed toward low-income students.

“I don’t think we’d be having this discussion at all if it weren’t for the budget,” Erwin said.

So far, the most significant change, Act 18, already has been signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards. Sponsored by Mandeville Sen. Jack Donahue, a Republican, the law sets a limit on the value of individual TOPS awards in coming years.

TOPS traditionally covers the full cost of tuition at public universities, and it will this fall, too. Beyond the next year, however, if schools raise their tuitions, TOPS awards won’t automatically increase. Rather, legislators would have to vote on awarding more money; if they don’t, students would have to meet the difference out of their pockets.

Raising tuition is a difficult feat in Louisiana. Unlike every other state in the nation, Louisiana’s public colleges and universities require agreement from two-thirds of the Legislature to increase their tuition. That’s one major reason why Louisiana’s rates historically have been lower than at public institutions in other Southern states.

Under Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Legislature passed the GRAD Act, which gave schools the ability to raise tuition provided the colleges and universities reached preset benchmarks, such as graduation rates. But that limited autonomy is coming to an end. The 2016-17 year is the last year that schools — at least those that met their benchmarks — will be able to raise tuition, though the Legislature still could approve a measure that would give schools tuition-raising freedom.

The other bill that changes the program is one that lifts the eligibility requirements for students in the upper TOPS tiers. While in-state students who get a 2.5 core GPA and a 20 on the ACT are guaranteed full tuition coverage, students with higher ACT scores and GPAs can receive additional annual stipends.

Senate Bill 329 increases the GPA requirements for the students who receive the extra stipends. The minimum GPA for a TOPS Performance award, which gets a student $400, goes from 3.0 to 3.25, but the ACT requirement of a 23 stays the same. The Honors award, which gives a student an annual stipend of $800, goes from 3.0 to 3.5, while the ACT requirement of a 27 remains in place.

SB329 would affect only about 1,200 students and save the state only about $1.9 million. The bill also won’t take effect for four years, so high school students who are working to meet the current marks won’t have the rules changed on them.

The measure is awaiting the governor’s signature to become law.

Originally, the legislation, sponsored by Baton Rouge Republican Sen. Dan Claitor, sought to increase the minimum GPA for all students receiving TOPS to 2.75. That was quickly rejected. Other bills that also proposed raising the minimum ACT score or GPA for the standard award all were defeated or abandoned early in committee.

The third measure passed to address TOPS doesn’t go into effect unless the state fails to fully fund the program. Under current law, if the state can’t fund the entire $300 million program, then students with the lowest ACT scores would lose their awards first to make up the difference.

Senate Bill 470 would change the distribution so all students who meet the minimum qualifications would get a portion of TOPS, but no one would get full tuition covered. Students would have to pay the difference to remain in college.

The Senate voted 36-1 Monday for the measure, sending it to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who supports it and is expected to sign it into law. It's still to be determined if the state can fully fund the program though.

Louisiana is one of a few states with state-funded tuition programs for in-state students, like the HOPE program in Georgia and Bright Futures in Florida. But Louisiana’s program has the lowest eligibility requirements. Other states also have felt the effects of ballooning costs and dwindling state support, and their lawmakers — like those in Florida — have been quicker to pass laws to manage costs of the programs and cap the awards.

James A. Caillier, executive director of the New Orleans-based Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, said the charitable group created by the oilman who founded TOPS is supportive of the changes made in the current session.

He said the Taylor Foundation advocated for a way to control the awards because it wanted to contribute to the sustainability of the program. While the foundation typically opposes changes to the academic requirements, it accepted Claitor’s bill because it affected so few students.

“Beyond that, I don’t think there need to be changes,” Caillier said. “We think the right balance is there, and there is no need for significant changes.”

Many legislators agree with him.

Claitor said he proposed raising the standards because he thinks the bar is set too low and that increasing the GPA will only motivate students to work harder. But he stressed that he’s not advocating for any students to be cut from TOPS and that he previously has opposed Donahue’s ceiling.

“It’s my belief that TOPS is the best economic development program that we have,” he said.

Asked if there was any room left to change TOPS, he said, “What is there left to do? I’m not a believer in the need to scale the program back.”

Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he is hopeful the cap will make the growth of the program more manageable. But he said something had to be done because TOPS was getting to a point where its growth was unsustainable.

“If TOPS were to continue to grow at the rates it’s been growing at the last several years, at some point, some legislator is going to say, ‘We can’t do this anymore,’ ” he said.

State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, a member of the House Education Committee, said he’d like to see the costs cut in a way that also incentivizes higher performance. He sponsored a bill that died in committee that would have staggered TOPS payments so freshmen received only 80 percent of their tuition, sophomores received 90 percent and then juniors and seniors full tuition.

“We have to fund the program so that it can operate but not at such a level that we have insufficient funds for other necessary programs for the state, which include direct funding for higher education,” Broadwater said. “We can still do that — I think we ought to do that — but I think we did the most we can do this year.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.