Modest Changes Proposed To Louisiana TOPS Tuition Program

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Senators looking for ways to control the ballooning price tag of Louisiana's TOPS free college tuition program advanced modest cost-containment proposals Thursday, with more sweeping bills to change who can receive the tuition aid seemingly sidelined.

         Lawmakers are working on a backup plan for how to divvy up the money available for students in the likely event that the governor and lawmakers don't have enough money to pay for full free tuition for all the students who meet the current criteria for TOPS.

         Gov. John Bel Edwards said he supports the approach backed by the Senate Education Committee that would lock in the TOPS tuition payment rate at next year's level, unless lawmakers vote to raise payments when tuition rises.

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         A companion bill, also supported by Edwards and the Senate committee, would rework the method for dividing the available cash for TOPS in the upcoming 2016-17 school year to give every student who meets the program criteria some tuition financing.

         "Clearly it's not what I would like to do. I wish it weren't necessary," the Democratic governor said of the proposals.

         With a shortfall estimated at $750 million for next year's budget, it's not clear how much money the highly popular program will receive in the financial year that begins July 1. It would take nearly $294 million to pay for all the students who are estimated to be eligible. Edwards and legislative leaders suggest the state won't have enough money to cover that full amount.

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         "We simply don't have it," the governor said.

         Current law calls for giving the free tuition first to students with the highest ACT scores if the program isn't fully funded.

         A proposal by Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, would instead allow an evenly distributed cut to each student's award, so everyone gets at least some tuition aid, even if not the full amount they would otherwise qualify to receive. The measure, approved by the Senate committee without objection, heads to the full Senate for debate.

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         In addition to backing Morrish's bill, the governor is reversing course from his predecessor, Republican Bobby Jindal, in supporting a bill by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, that would put spending restrictions on TOPS. Jindal vetoed the measure last year.

         Under the bill, the TOPS tuition payment rate would be locked in at the 2016-17 level. Rather than automatic increases whenever tuition costs rise, increases to TOPS payments in later years would need separate legislative approval.

         Students and parents would have to pay more out of pocket if campuses raise tuition rates and lawmakers refuse to boost TOPS awards to cover the increases.

         Supporters said the measure sought to ensure Louisiana can continue to afford TOPS.

         "When programs are successful like this program, they can't just continue to grow forever," Donahue said.

         No one spoke in opposition to the measure in the Senate Education Committee, and one of last year's opponents announced a switch in position.

         Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said the state's financial problems have driven him to change his mind, though he said: "I hate that this is where we're at."

         The bill moves to the Senate floor.

         The committee also supported a measure to raise the minimum academic standard to get add-on TOPS stipends for higher-performing students.

         But efforts to shrink the program's costs by making fewer students eligible have failed to gain traction. Morrish scrapped his proposal to end TOPS awards for students to attend private colleges. A day earlier, the House Education Committee stalled a bill seeking to modify TOPS criteria.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte

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