Louisiana Bill Adds Cost Controls On TOPS Tuition Program
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Cost controls would be added to Louisiana's TOPS free college tuition program under a bill backed Wednesday by state higher-education leaders.
The legislation is meant to address concerns about its ballooning price tag and is sponsored by two Senate leaders: Finance Chairman Jack Donahue and Education Chairman Conrad Appel, both Republicans. And it has the critical backing of Phyllis Taylor, wife of the program's namesake and a fierce TOPS protector.
Under the proposal, the TOPS tuition payment rate would be locked in at the 2015-16 level. Rather than the current automatic increases whenever tuition costs rise on college campuses, boosts to TOPS payments in the 2016-17 school year and beyond would have to get separate approval from lawmakers.
Students would be assured their TOPS payments wouldn't drop below the existing payment level. But they and their parents could pay more out of pocket for college if lawmakers don't increase TOPS payments as campuses raise their tuition rates.
Supporters said the changes would give lawmakers more financial predictability and ensure TOPS can be sustained. Otherwise, they said the ever-growing cost of the program threatens the state's ability to continue it.
"It is a danger to the state budget over long periods of time," said Appel, R-Metairie. "However, this bill gives us the opportunity to put the brakes on that, decouple it from some of the exponential growth and ensure that TOPS will exist for future generations."
Lawmakers will consider the idea in the legislative session that begins April 13. It's unclear whether Gov. Bobby Jindal will support the measure.
The nearly 20-year-old program is slated to cost $284 million in the upcoming 2015-16 year to cover more than 55,000 students, an increase of $34 million over this year.
Worries about the cost of TOPS have grown as the state has faced continuing budget shortfalls and as colleges have boosted their tuition rates to compensate for cuts to their state financing. Each increase in tuition drives up the cost of TOPS.
But 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.
Efforts to tweak the program have repeatedly failed.
Taylor's support is expected to help the bill gain traction. She joined the senators, the Board of Regents and others at a press conference Wednesday to announce her backing.
TOPS was the brainchild of Taylor's late husband, Patrick, and the program is formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. Phyllis Taylor said she wanted a way to sustain the program despite the state's ongoing financial constraints.
"We believe that this is the answer," she said.
Jindal's support of this measure appears to hinge on whether he considers the restrictions a "cap."
"TOPS is an excellent program that helps our kids get a great education. We will oppose any bill that caps TOPS or limits the ability of qualified Louisiana families to utilize this program. We will review this bill as it goes through the process to determine if it will have a negative impact on the program," Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Dirmann said in a statement.
– by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte