Analysis: TOPS Program At Center Of Budget And Tax Debate


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's TOPS college tuition program is much beloved by middle-class families, a point of bickering among state lawmakers and a high-dollar, mainly discretionary spending item in the state's budget.

And it was one of the primary bargaining chips in legislative haggling over the budget and taxes in the latest special session.

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Though the program is expected to get full financing, the situation left students and parents weeks away from a new school year still uncertain with how much tuition the program will cover — and if they would have to pay hundreds or thousands more dollars out of pocket than expected.

College students already on TOPS, freshmen entering school with a new TOPS award and their parents lit up social media, buttonholed lawmakers in hearing rooms and rallied with higher education leaders and the governor to seek full financing.

A group called TOPS Moms has been posting on Facebook and Twitter photos of students expecting TOPS assistance to attend college, photos of students in caps and gowns as they graduate high school and in T-shirts of the colleges they'll be attending.

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More than 100 students assembled at the Louisiana Capitol on Wednesday, seeking to pressure lawmakers to pass taxes to pay for their TOPS awards. For several college student leaders, it wasn't their first trips to plead for money they thought they were guaranteed by following the rules for the program.

But they've gotten a crash course in politics.

"It has been an eye-opening experience that the priority has not been for the students," said Southern University student leader Anthony Kenney, the student member of Louisiana's Board of Regents.

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Students at the rally wore T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of out-of-state colleges — a suggestion they are Louisiana's best and brightest who chose to stay in the state, when they could have gone to school elsewhere. Many of them say they stayed here because of TOPS.

Formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, TOPS began covering college tuition costs in 1998 and is credited with improving high school performance and college graduation rates in a poor state that has struggled to boost education attainment. But its costs have shot up to nearly $300 million annually, as more students reached the modest eligibility standards and as colleges boosted tuition rates to compensate for cuts to their state financing.

Louisiana has spent $2.7 billion on TOPS since it began.

The program pays for 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 receive additional stipends, while other students get aid to attend community and technical colleges. The average yearly tuition rate in Louisiana is $5,600.

Students or their parents still pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in additional fees on top of that award. But until recently, TOPS had been a reliable source of aid for graduating high school students to attend college. More than 50,000 students are in the program.

In recent years, the assistance hasn't stayed so reliable.

For the first time, lawmakers didn't fully fund TOPS during the 2016-17 school year, leaving students and parents to make up the difference when Louisiana didn't pay 30 percent of the annual tuition costs.

For the past 2017-18 school year, lawmakers put up enough money to pay full tuition.

They're expected to do that again for the upcoming school year after the latest special session — but they've also indicated that TOPS is more vulnerable to the chopping block than it used to be, a break from past positions where the program was considered nearly untouchable in Baton Rouge.

LSU System President F. King Alexander told students at the rally that if lawmakers didn't fully cover tuition through TOPS, "they're breaking a promise to you and taxing your parents and taxing you guys."

College students say they don't understand why higher education isn't given more priority for funding.

"We're an investment to a better future for Louisiana," said Jeremy Gray, a welding student at Central Louisiana Technical Community College.

– by Melinda Deslatte, AP reporter

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