Don't Touch TOPS: Edwards Wants Free Tuition Program 'As Is'

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — While lawmakers may be considering ways to trim the costs of Louisiana's free college tuition program, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday that he isn't interested in tweaking the much-beloved TOPS program.

"I would prefer that we keep TOPS as is," the Democratic governor said at a luncheon speech to reporters.

TOPS, which began covering tuition costs in 1998, is credited with improving high school performance and college graduation rates in a poor state that has labored to boost education attainment. But costs have shot up to an estimated $291 million this school year, as more students reached the eligibility standards and as tuition on college campuses rose.

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The price tag is alarming some lawmakers as the state continues to grapple with budget shortfalls.

Lawmakers convened a study group to make recommendations for changes to TOPS. That group is scheduled to start discussing proposals Thursday, for consideration in the legislative session that begins in March.

It's questionable whether they will be able to come up with ideas that could win Edwards' backing.

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"I don't favor changing TOPS; I favor funding TOPS," he said.

He acknowledged that can be "hard to do" amid the state's budget struggles — and he left open a window for discussion about adjustments. He said if the state ever gets to the point "where we're going to chronically underfund TOPS," it might not make sense to leave the program as is. But he said that's not his current focus.

About $1 billion in temporary sales taxes are expiring on July 1 when the new state budget year begins. Edwards is proposing a package of taxes to replace the expiring revenue, but House GOP lawmakers blocked similar measures from passing last year.

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The two sides are continuing negotiations. But TOPS could be at risk if they don't reach a deal and deep cuts have to be made.

If the TOPS program isn't fully funded by the governor and lawmakers, each student receiving tuition payments receives a pro rata cut. That's happened once before, during the last school year, when lawmakers covered only 70 percent of tuition costs for eligible students. They returned to full financing this year.

-By Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

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