Proposed Redesign of Louisiana Tuition Program Criticized

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A proposal to rewrite Louisiana's TOPS college tuition program, to limit the dollars flowing to lower-performing students, is hitting pushback before it even gets a vote.

Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, a Jennings Republican, wants to reduce the amount of tuition covered for students who reach the basic award for a four-year college, to give them a flat $4,000 payment for the year, below the $5,600 average annual tuition rate in Louisiana. Payments would then increase for higher-performing students.

Currently, the program has tiers that offer stipends for higher-performing students, but tuition at a four-year school is covered for any high school graduate who reaches a 2.5 grade-point average and 20 ACT college entrance exam score.

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A legislative task force studying TOPS will decide Feb. 7 whether to include Morrish's proposal in its recommendations to the full Legislature. Critics on Wednesday said the changes could keep students from attending college and disproportionately hit poorer students.

"For some kids, that $1,600 is going to be the difference between them going to college or not," said Sen. Wesley Bishop, a New Orleans Democrat.

Morrish, chairman of the task force, said TOPS would remain among the most generous college tuition programs in the nation. He said the change — which wouldn't affect anyone currently receiving TOPS — could push students to improve their performance by offering them larger tuition payments and stipends if they achieve higher GPAs and ACT scores.

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"I don't think we're leaving them out in the cold by any means. We're reducing the award," he said. "I think it's an incentive for those students to step up."

James Caillier, a booster for the program, said Morrish's proposal would be a "horrible mistake" for TOPS. He said the students at the lower performance levels are generally low-income students "with the greatest financial need."

"This proposal takes from the bottom and gives to the top. It's a redistribution of funds," said Caillier, executive director of a foundation created by Pat Taylor, the philanthropist who designed a TOPS precursor and for whom the program is named.

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TOPS, which began covering tuition costs in 1998, is credited with improving high school performance and college graduation rates. But costs have grown to $290 million this school year, as more students reached the eligibility standards and as tuition on college campuses rose.

Morrish's proposal is estimated to save about $20 million a year, though it would take a few years to reach that savings level.

If the task force backs Morrish's idea, the suggestion would require a change in state law. Gov. John Bel Edwards hasn't said whether he supports the concept. Meanwhile, it remains unclear if TOPS will be fully funded in the 2018-19 school year as lawmakers grapple with a $1 billion budget gap.

Other proposals to change eligibility requirements and the payment terms also are being offered.

-By Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

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