With the signature of Gov. John Bel Edwards expected, a bill is going to allow the Legislature to contain the rising costs to the taxpayer of the TOPS tuition waivers.
The bill by state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, is similar to the one he passed earlier but was vetoed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. We think Edwards is right to sign the Donahue bill because of the state’s financial situation and the need for regular assessment of the popular TOPS program’s cost.
Under current rules, TOPS awards rise when tuition goes up. The bill would lock in the amounts to what recipients get for the 2016-17 school year.
In the future, students and families would have to absorb the costs of tuition increases unless the Legislature provides funds for any such boost in the TOPS waiver.
“The Legislature can increase the TOPS award amounts in any given year, every year, if funding is available,” said House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, and House sponsor of the bill.
Landry saidcost of TOPS has risen $297 million for the 2016-17 school year. Without reform,that cost would rise as tuition — still generally lower at public colleges and universities than in many other states — rises in future.
This legislation “decouples” the TOPS cost from tuition, and that might mean that in the short term the student and family members would pay more out of pocket.
The bill provides, though, for lawmakers to raise the TOPS award over time. It also does nothing to deal with the quite modest level of academic achievement needed for TOPS.
The sad truth is that many TOPS students are not ready for college work, with as many as a third of them losing their awards because of poor grades. The Donahue bill does not raise academic standards for the grants over time.
In the main, this is hardly a massive overhaul but is in fact a modest and much-compromised approach, enforced by the state’s straitened financial circumstances. Jindal’s budgets have blown up and TOPS — pure state dollars, not matched by federal funds in any way — require a growing investment from the general fund.
Some opposition to the Donahue bill came on the House floor, where it ultimately passed 74-20.
Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite, said he has concerns that students who are freshmen and sophomores are at risk of having to absorb tuition hikes of up to 20 percent because of the legislation. “I don’t like the idea that we made a promise and now we may not be able to fulfill it,” Carter said.
Carter could look around the House chamber and see members who have collaborated in many more broken promises in higher education, as lawmakers and Jindal consistently pushed tuition increases to allow the general fund dollars to be leached away into other programs.
It was a shell game that has had real consequences for the quality of the education that TOPS students, and their peers, ultimately receive. A bigger state investment in quality, not just quantity through tuition waivers, is vital to fulfilling the state’s promises to its college students.