House Votes For TOPS Program Cost Controls; Jindal Opposed

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Despite opposition from Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana House voted Tuesday to put spending restrictions on the TOPS free college tuition program, a bill that could have students and their parents paying more out of pocket for tuition.

         The 61-33 vote moved the proposal by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, to one step away from final legislative passage. The measure heads back to the Senate for approval of changes.

         Under the bill, 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.

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         Supporters say adding cost controls to TOPS would ensure Louisiana can continue to afford the program long term to help students go to college. Without it, the price tag for TOPS will continue to balloon, they say.

         "We're going to protect the TOPS program and make it sustainable for the future," said Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, who handled the bill in the House.

         But the proposal drew opposition from Jindal and others who noted it could mean students who receive the tuition awards and their parents have higher college costs because the TOPS program could cover less than the full price of a school's tuition.

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         The Jindal administration said that would break the promise made to students that if they reached certain academic benchmarks, the state would pay for their tuition.

         Jindal's office didn't immediately respond Tuesday to a question about whether the Republican governor would veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

         Changes to TOPS are politically difficult.

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         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.

         But TOPS is slated to cost $284 million next year and is projected to continue growing. Lawmakers worry about being able to continue affording the program, particularly as colleges seek continued tuition increases to offset state financing reductions.

         To get the basic TOPS scholarship that covers all tuition costs at a public college in Louisiana, a graduating high school student must have a 2.5 GPA on core curriculum and a 20 ACT score. The program is slated to cover more than 55,000 students' tuition next year.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte

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