For the longest time, the TOPS college scholarship program, which offers free public college tuition to in-state students who meet relatively humble benchmarks, has been a sacred cow for Louisiana politicians.
Even amid reports that the program was on a financially unsustainable path, due not just to its widespread use but also to rising tuition aimed at making up for deep cuts in direct state aid, officials have long resisted placing limits on the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
Yes, the Legislature once again adopted a measure this year to prevent scholarship totals from automatically rising along with tuition. And unlike the last time it tried, when former Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed the legislation, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed it into law.
But that’s a measure that’s aimed at helping down the road, not right now, amid the state’s historic budget shortfall. And it does nothing to address deeper policy questions of whether to raise the academic benchmarks or award scholarships based on need rather than pure merit, two areas that both the governor and many lawmakers are clearly reluctant to touch.
But big change is happening anyway — not by design, but by default.
Thanks to the Legislature’s reluctance to directly confront the budget crisis, TOPS has become something it’s never been before: unreliable.
Not because anyone set out to make it that way; neither the Democratic governor nor the conservative lawmakers who’ve spent his first six months resisting his calls for higher taxes want to see TOPS cut. Sure, Edwards has used the TOPS shortfall as leverage, knowing conservative critics of his plan to raise revenue — and more importantly, their largely middle-class constituents — consider it a top priority. But politicians on both sides of the budget divide deem full TOPS funding a major goal.
Yet just two months before fall classes are set to start, it looks as if they won’t get there.
Next year’s initially approved budget called for TOPS to be about half funded, and a bill passed during the regular session mandated that the cuts be spread evenly among all 50,000 or so recipients.
With some but not nearly enough additional revenue likely to be adopted during the current special session, the best guess is that scholarships for the coming year could be covered at 70 percent, leaving families scrambling to piece together the rest of the tuition money on short notice, along with the ever-increasing fees that state colleges have adopted in recent years.
Some families can simply write bigger checks. From 2003 to 2014, more than half of TOPS came from families with incomes of $70,000 or above, and nearly 14 percent had parents who made more than $150,000.
But many, including those with middle-class incomes, will struggle, and rightfully feel as if the rug has been pulled out from under them.
Stronger students with more options are likely to take another look at them, meaning that Louisiana could lose some of its best and brightest. And some will simply see the hope of college fall out of reach.
The Advocate’s Rebekah Allen outlined some other potential repercussions in a front-page story Sunday. LSU President F. King Alexander warned that the state’s flagship campus, where most students qualify for TOPS, could see declining enrollment if students decide to opt for less expensive schools. An unplanned decline in enrollment could have a ripple effect, he said, since the school has become more dependent on tuition and fees as direct aid has dramatically dipped.
An influx to less costly community colleges could overwhelm campuses that have seen cuts as well.
Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, predicted that after lawmakers have shorted TOPS once, they’ll have an easier time doing so again in the future. So it’s not hard to imagine the uncertainty families are now experiencing becoming routine rather than exceptional.
For families with college-age kids, and those with younger children who are trying to plan for the future, the new message from state government is clear: Count on TOPS at your own risk.