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Tuition and TOPS cost-control bills near final passage, but remain a long shot in La. House

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — A package of bills that would take lawmakers out of the tuition-setting business and place new spending restrictions on Louisiana's TOPS free college tuition program edged closer Wednesday to final legislative passage.

Despite support without objection from the House Education Committee, the Senate-backed proposals by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, remain a long shot as they head to the full House for consideration. One part of the package faces opposition from Gov. Bobby Jindal, and House members have balked at a similar proposal.

One of Donahue's bills would let college system management boards raise tuition for campuses without needing legislative approval, a key priority of higher education leaders for the legislative session. However, that authority is tied to a second measure that would put limits on TOPS tuition awards.

Changes to TOPS are politically difficult.

The program is much beloved among middle-class families, who benefit disproportionately from the tuition aid. Also, the program is credited with helping more students get college degrees in a state with low levels of educational attainment.

Under the proposal, the TOPS tuition payment rate would be locked in at the 2015-16 level. Rather than the current automatic increases whenever tuition costs rise, increases to TOPS payments in the 2016-17 school year and beyond would have to get separate approval from lawmakers.

That could mean students and their parents pay more out of pocket for college even if the students met all the academic requirements to receive a TOPS award — and that's why Jindal and some lawmakers object.

Although the bill calls the TOPS payment rate a baseline, Jindal's assistant chief of staff Stafford Palmieri said it could end up being a cap if lawmakers don't agree to raise the payment rates in later years. Capping the awards could potentially restrict access to higher education, Palmieri said.

"TOPS is a promise that we made to students in Louisiana that if they did well in high school that we would reward them when they went to college. Capping TOPS breaks that promise," she said.

But Donahue described his bill as a way to protect TOPS, which is slated to cost $284 million next year and is projected to continue growing. Without ways to limit the program's ballooning price tag, the state might not be able to continue affording the program, he said.

"TOPS is a wonderful program. ... That's why we want to put something in place to make sure it can be there for our children and grandchildren," Donahue said.

A day earlier, lawmakers in the House killed a proposal by Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, that would have let colleges set their own tuition rates. That bill would have kept TOPS from covering the additional costs.

Only 45 lawmakers in the 105-member House voted for Carmody's bill. It needed 70 votes to pass.

On Wednesday, a proposal to let the college system management boards raise tuition and fees only for graduate programs — which would have no impact on TOPS — also couldn't win passage in the House. It received 64 votes, six short of what was needed.


Online:

Senate Bills 48 and 55: http://www.legis.la.gov

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