TOPS task force defers on specific overhauls, sends proposals to Legislature

Local News
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A legislative panel tasked with proposing changes to Louisiana’s TOPS college scholarship program deferred nine recommendations to the full Legislature Wednesday, without backing any particular idea.

The 10-member task force, following 12 meetings in five months, voted unanimously to subject the proposals to the regular legislative session that begins March 12.

“The logical thing for us to do, because there are only 10 of us and 144 members of the Legislature, is to package these proposals,” panel chairman Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish (R-Jennings) told members.

Morrish’s cost-saving plan would drop the basic TOPS award to a flat $4,000 stipend, while increasing payments for higher-performing students. The Jennings Republican estimates his proposal would save $20 million a year.

Other recommendations would likely raise the scholarship’s budgetary footprint. That includes one by Sen. Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans) to offer “second chance” scholarships to college juniors who did not previously qualify, and another by Sen. Mack “Bodi” White (R-Central) to let community college students keep their TOPS awards if they transfer to four-year schools.

“We are so focused on this program that we forget about the kids,” said Sen. Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe).

Under White’s recommendation, TOPS Tech students who complete an associate’s degree in two years and keep a 3.2 grade-point average could qualify for the TOPS Opportunity scholarship. James Callier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation and a former president of Delgado Community College, suggested the proposal would be too costly.

“These students who do not meet the requirements should not get TOPS funding,” he said. “We don’t need to destroy a program that works.”

Additional suggestions include finding a dedicated funding stream for the program and reducing stipends if the program is cut.

Roughly 52,000 students get aid from TOPS, which began covering tuition costs in 1998. Since its inception, the average tuition at four-year schools has risen to $5,600. The cost of the program itself ballooned to occupy $290 million of the 2017-18 state budget. Many legislators have spent recent years seeking to slice the program’s cost, only to meet lukewarm receptions.

Numerous proposals advanced Wednesday, particularly those regarding potential budget cuts, contradict one another. One recommendation saves two TOPS tiers — those for students scoring 30 or better on the ACT, and those for students from households making $60,000 or less a year — from cuts. Another would keep all awards at 70 percent of current levels.

Task force members defended their decision to send all their ideas, however contrary, to the Legislature.

“They’ll say you kicked the can down the down, that they didn’t make one recommendation,” Morrish said. “I think by putting all of these on the table and saying we looked at everything, there can be compromise.”

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