Melissa Alba, a Loyola University sophomore, feels like she and her classmates are being ignored in the hand-wringing over the future of TOPS.
Public debate and news headlines instead have been focused on what will happen to the 47,000-odd students at public universities in Louisiana if there are sweeping changes to the state-awarded scholarship program that foots their tuition bills, she said.
The 18-year-old says the roughly 13 percent of her tuition covered by the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is just as precious to her. And it may be even more imperiled, thanks to a legislative push to dump private school students from the popular but ever-more-expensive program.
Alba, who lives in Terrytown, is one of more than 3,200 Louisiana residents attending an in-state private university partly at state taxpayers’ expense this year. Like others, she’s receiving about $5,100 in TOPS scholarship money to help cover the cost. She’d be in the last cohort of private school students to benefit from the program, if a proposal limiting TOPS to public school students gains traction.
The plan was authored by Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, as one way to help close an estimated $750 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Cutting private schools out of TOPS eventually would save the state roughly $20 million a year. That’s about 7 percent of the $300 million the program is expected to cost the state overall in the next fiscal year, if it’s fully funded.
Separately, the state will make cuts totaling $70 million to close a shortfall in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, with Gov. John Bel Edwards expected to decide this week where the ax will fall.
It’s not clear if Morrish’s measure will pass. Leaders of private colleges are against it because they think it will make their schools less attractive to in-state students. It’s also opposed by the influential Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, whose co-founder also lends his name to the scholarship program that he helped develop.
“This is our philosophy, and it has never changed from day one: A student can attend any school in Louisiana if he is eligible for TOPS,” said James Caillier, executive director of the foundation and a member of Loyola’s board of trustees.
As Caillier often points out, a primary goal of TOPS is to keep “the best and brightest” students at Louisiana universities because they’ll be more apt to settle in the state if they attend college here. Whether the school in question is public or private is immaterial in terms of achieving that goal.
Morrish concedes that cutting out private schools will be controversial. He stressed that he’s not out to limit student choice; rather, he’s trying to explore every possible method to rein in a scholarship program he said has become too costly.
“Maybe it needs to be adjusted; maybe it’s fine the way it is. But I think we need to have the conversation,” Morrish said.
His Senate Bill 169 would not affect Alba and other current students but only those who enter nonpublic colleges in the 2017-18 academic year and beyond. So the estimated $20 million in savings would be phased in over four years.
This is not Morrish’s first attempt to curb TOPS, though he said it’s the first time he’s sought a private school ban. He said he pressed the issue after constituents repeatedly asked him why private schools, which charge costly tuitions and receive the support of wealthy benefactors, are being subsidized by a state program.
That money instead could be going to public schools, he said — and they need the help. Louisiana’s public universities have seen their state aid cut by more than half over the past eight years, money they’ve mostly made up with tuition hikes. For schools like LSU, where most students qualify for TOPS, that means the state is still picking up the tab indirectly. But at other schools, like Southern University at New Orleans, hardly any students get TOPS scholarships, meaning the tuition increases fall on them.
“The TOPS money — when it goes to a public school — it’s not like we sent it to a foreign country,” Morrish said. “But when you send it to a private school, it goes to operate the private school.”
State data show that since 1998, the year the state first abandoned income caps on the program, about $191 million in TOPS funding has gone to private schools. That’s less than 10 percent of the $2.1 billion public schools have received over the same time period.
But the additional money has been a boon to the private schools nonetheless, allowing them to offer what amounts to a taxpayer-funded discount on tuition for in-state students. How meaningful a discount depends on the school.
At one end of the spectrum is Tulane University, where TOPS covers about 10 percent of a full-time student’s tuition, roughly $51,000. But it makes up a much bigger slice of the pie at less-expensive private schools in Louisiana.
TOPS covers more than a third of a typical student’s tuition at Louisiana College, a private school in Pineville, according to President Rick Brewer. Tuition there runs about $13,200 a year; typically, about 40 percent of Brewer’s students are on TOPS.
“Every program we have is threatened by the loss of TOPS students,” Brewer said. In preparation for any cuts, the Baptist college is drawing up contingency budget plans and studying a need-based pricing model, officials added.
Officials from Xavier University of Louisiana, a Roman Catholic university in Gert Town, said about a quarter of their students receive TOPS scholarships. Xavier’s tuition is roughly $20,000 a year — more than Louisiana College’s but far less that Tulane’s.
All undergraduate programs “clearly” would be affected, Xavier spokesman Richard Tucker said — particularly Xavier’s popular science, pre-med and pre-pharmacy programs, which educate many TOPS recipients.
At Loyola, tuition alone runs about $37,000 a year. But even that price tag hasn’t protected the Jesuit institution from dire budget woes. Loyola is still recovering from an enrollment slump that necessitated layoffs, buyouts and other cuts, and its new sustainability plan greatly relies on boosting enrollment over the next five years.
Asked how a decrease in TOPS money would affect that plan, university officials said it was too soon to tell.
“It is our strong hope that legislators will take all possible measures to allow recipients to continue their college educations, to keep Louisiana talent in Louisiana and to further advance the knowledge economy,” officials said in a statement.
The uncertainty around TOPS has prompted widespread fretting in recent weeks that homegrown talent will have one more reason to leave Louisiana, and Alba and some of her classmates say they and other students at private universities should be included in that number. Combined with other aid, TOPS money often makes Louisiana universities more attractive than what those students would get at similarly priced schools elsewhere.
Even Morrish said the concern is “legitimate,” though he also said every student makes different college decisions for different reasons.
Alba, for her part, considered transferring to a university in California next year, shortly after the purported death of TOPS began circulating. She said that after she heard word that Loyola will cover the 20 percent budget cut the program was slated to receive this year, she calmed down but is keeping her options open.
Rula Thabata, a Loyola freshman whose older sister goes to the University of New Orleans and whose older brother attends Xavier, said TOPS helps her parents avoid the full burden of putting three students through school.
If the program takes a haircut in the near future, she said, expect “a culture of debt” for those private and public scholars who do stay in the state. Others will just leave for another state and never come back, she said.
“Nobody can be blamed for taking a better opportunity,” she said.
Update, 3/21/16: Officials at Our Lady of the Lake College, a private Catholic college in Baton Rouge, said 18 percent of its students received TOPS awards this year, totaling $1.6 million. Among freshmen and transfers, that figure was 28 percent. The school plans to revisit marketing, fundraising and recruitment strategies to make up for any state funding losses.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.