La. senators refuse to make TOPS grads stay or repay

College students who receive tuition payments through the state’s TOPS program won’t face new residency or repayment requirements for their awards.

State senators Thursday rejected a proposal that would have mandated TOPS students live in the state for several years after graduation or reimburse Louisiana for a portion of their tuition costs.

Sen. Jay Luneau, an Alexandria Democrat, said his proposal was aimed at trying to persuade college graduates to say here as taxpayers, rather than taking TOPS money to help get a degree and then bailing on Louisiana.

“Maybe it’s the encouragement that they need to stay in the state and become productive citizens here,” Luneau said.

The repayment money, he said, could be put back into TOPS to help cover the costs of a program whose price tag has skyrocketed with campus tuition increases. Lawmakers only provided enough money this year to pay about 70 percent of tuition costs for students who received TOPS awards, and a similar amount is proposed for next year, rather than full tuition coverage.

“We have to make this program sustainable, and that means making changes,” Luneau said. “We have to make some hard choices.”

Not convinced

But his argument was unable to sway enough of his colleagues. The Senate education committee voted 4-2 to shelve Luneau’s bill.

Several senators said they understand Luneau’s worries about TOPS’ ballooning cost, but they questioned his approach. They said the state doesn’t have enough jobs to offer some graduates.

“We all want every student who has benefited from TOPS to stay here and do great things,” said Sen. Beth Mizell, a Republican from Franklinton. “But I think the onus is on Louisiana.”

Sen. Conrad Appel, a Metairie Republican, said he was concerned the changes Luneau proposed would give colleges in other states “more ammunition” to cherry-pick Louisiana’s best students. He also said some people have to move to find work in their fields.

“We’re the ones who caused the problem in the first place by not having a business climate that creates jobs that these kids can go into,” Appel said.

Luneau’s bill would have required students graduating from high school in the 2017-18 school year and thereafter to live in Louisiana within one year after their college graduation and stay in the state for a time equal to the years they received TOPS awards. Students who don’t stay and work in the state would have had to repay 50 percent of the tuition money.

“That’s still a pretty good deal, because if you choose to leave the state of Louisiana after the state has paid to educate you, you only have to pay back half,” Luneau said.

A legislative financial analysis said it’s not known what percentage of TOPS graduates leave the state after college because it hasn’t been tracked.

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