BATON ROUGE, La. — A proposal that would limit the tuition money available to lower-performing students in Louisiana’s TOPS college program stalled Tuesday, failing to win enough support from state senators.
The Senate Education Committee voted 4-3 against the proposal from its chairman, Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish.
Morrish, a Jennings Republican, proposed reducing the amount of tuition covered for students who reach the basic TOPS award for a four-year college to a flat $4,000 annual payment — below the $5,600 average yearly tuition rate in Louisiana.
Payments would have increased for higher-performing students.
The changes would affect future students, not any who are currently in high school or college.
Morrish said his bill would keep TOPS generous, while also pushing students to improve their performance. Critics countered the change could prevent students from attending college and disproportionately hit poorer students.
Rachel Campbell, newly-elected LSU student vice president, was among three TOPS recipients who opposed the proposal. She said data shows the students who would face cuts to TOPS awards would be low-income and minority students. She said higher education costs are rising and students need more help, not less.
“Legislators should reinvest in higher education and TOPS instead of making it more difficult for students,” Campbell said.
Morrish noted the changes wouldn’t begin until 2022. He said his goal was to drive students to do better in high school.
“This is about academic achievement. We have a lot of other programs for students who are low-income or economically deprived,” Morrish said.
TOPS, which began covering tuition costs in 1998, is credited with improving high school performance and college graduation rates. But its price tag grew to around $290 million this year as more students reached the eligibility standards and as tuition on college campuses rose. Lawmakers have diverged on whether TOPS should reward high-performing or needy students.
Morrish’s bill would have saved the state an estimated $9 million during its first year, according to an analysis.
James Caillier, executive director of a foundation that’s a booster for TOPS, suggested the program doesn’t need adjustments.
“We’re very proud of what we have in Louisiana, and other states wish they had the same thing, so I would hope we would leave the program the way it is,” he said.
Currently, the program covers tuition at a four-year school for any high school graduate who reaches a 2.5 grade-point average and 20 ACT college entrance exam score. Higher-performing students get additional stipends, while other students get aid to attend community and technical colleges.
As the state grapples with a budget gap, TOPS is threatened with cuts in the 2018-19 school year. Without changes, every student would share in those cuts equally.
Despite state financial worries, the Senate committee advanced two bills that would raise TOPS costs, starting in the 2024-25 budget year.
One measure would create a new award for TOPS students who attend community college, get an associate degree and enroll in a four-year university. The other would offer TOPS awards to students who weren’t initially eligible when they started a four-year university but meet certain criteria after two years in college.
Senate Bills 380, 394 and 450: www.legis.la.gov
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