La. task force can’t decide on changes for tuition program

A task force created to recommend ways to remake Louisiana’s TOPS college tuition program can’t decide how the popular, 20-year-old program should be tweaked after months of study.

The legislative study group decided Wednesday to advance every one of the close to a dozen proposals that have been offered, instead of choosing a few to recommend to the House and Senate for consideration in the regular session that begins next month.

Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, the Jennings Republican who chairs the task force, said the proposals were “identified as a path forward in some way, shape or form” that could sharpen the legislature’s focus as it debates the future of TOPS.

“We understand that all of the members do not support all” the proposals, Morrish said.

No consensus

Some of the ideas are divisive. Several conflict with each other. Some would raise the program’s cost even amid concerns TOPS has grown too expensive, while others would cut it.

Task force members diverge on whether TOPS should reward high-performing or needy students. That’s the same dispute lawmakers have grappled with for years, as TOPS’ costs grew to $290 million this school year. They don’t agree on what the program’s focus should be and which students should be prioritized.

Currently, the program covers tuition at a four-year school for any high school graduate who reaches a 2.5 grade-point average and 20 ACT college entrance exam score. Higher-performing students get additional stipends, while other students get aid to attend community and technical colleges.

TOPS, which began covering tuition costs in 1998, is credited with improving high school performance and college graduation rates. But its price tag ballooned as more students reached the eligibility standards and as tuition on college campuses rose.

As the state grapples with a $1 billion budget gap, TOPS is threatened with cuts in the 2018-19 school year. Without changes, every student would share in those cuts equally.

Disproportionately affected

Only a package of technical adjustments won full support from the task force members.

The other proposals advanced for consideration without a decision would broaden who could receive TOPS to include some lower-performing students; seek a dedicated financing source for the program to keep it from cuts; and eliminate the stipends currently available to higher-performing students.

One of the most sweeping ideas came from Morrish, who will introduce it as legislation.

His proposal would 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.

Critics said Morrish’s plan could keep students from attending college and disproportionately hit poorer students. Morrish said it would keep TOPS generous, while also pushing students to improve their performance.

James Caillier, executive director of a foundation that is a booster for TOPS, suggested the program doesn’t need adjustments.

“We don’t need to destroy a program that works,” Caillier said. “The TOPS program as designed is a good program.”

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