BATON ROUGE — State lawmakers, struggling with ways to make higher education more affordable, rejected a bill that sought to keep TOPS solvent and advanced a measure that aims to help students make more money after college.
Lawmakers have hacked away at the higher education budget over the past several years, causing tuition increases to make up the difference in aid, and driving up the cost of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, commonly referred to as the TOPS scholarship.
Louisiana high school students who meet certain education standards can apply for full or partial tuition coverage, paid for by the state, through TOPS.
A bill to slim the costs of TOPS, House Bill 1153 sponsored Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, died in a 9 to 4 vote in the House Education Committee Tuesday. Many lawmakers agree that TOPS is fiscally unstable and may survive to help students in the future, but the Legislature is having trouble finding common ground on how to fix the program.
Harrison admitted that TOPS is only one of the problems that plague higher education. The committee preferred a bill that would aim to tackle more of those problems.
Senate Bill 337, sponsored by the upper chamber's education committee chairman, Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, would establish a council among higher education officials charged with creating a new aid formula for institutions or expanding the existing one.
Appel pushed an outcomes-based formula through the Legislature two years ago that allowed institutions to raise tuition based on certain benchmarks like graduation rates, but he said it isn't working the way it was intended. Most institutions have met the requirements, but Appel said the state isn't seeing the desired effects in the workforce.
“We've got to put emphasis, not force, on degrees that give students a meaningful opportunity to get a job,” Appel said.
Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, worried the bill interfered with the mission of higher education by guiding and perhaps curtailing what students study.
“I don't want to create a system of education in this state where we don't consider the arts,” Edwards said. “There's a whole lot more to quality of life than just earning power.”
The bill explains that the state's resources are limited and should go to institutions that are most effective. The criteria would consider the state's economic development and workforce needs but also take into account that different institutions, be it a four-year university, two-year technical or community college or a historically black institution, fulfill that role in their own ways.
“This is not about STEM degrees,” Appel said, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. “This is not about producing people for the workforce.”
He emphasized that students are struggling when they finish college.
“This is about students. They get out of school and they can't pay the debt,” Appel said.
Other bills to stabilize higher education cuts are making their way through the legislative process, such as House Bill 222 by Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans. The Senate is scheduled to take up Leger's bill Wednesday.
It would restrict the Legislature's ability to allocate less money to higher education than the amount doled out for the school year wrapping up this month.
Some lawmakers argue that money saved from TOPS, which goes primarily to four-year schools, could be more equitably dispersed among all kinds of institutions.
Harrison said his bill would have saved $17 million in its first year and grow to save $24 million four years out.
The bill would have bumped the required ACT score from a 20 to a 22.
Increases in qualifications have met resistance from members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus. The majority of black students who receive TOPS score between a 20 and a 22 on the ACT.
Harrison's bill would have made an exception for students who finished high school with a grade point average of 3.0 or higher, but that compromise was not enough to please Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, who objected to the bill.
“I'm never going to vote for something that has a disproportionate effect on the people I represent,” Bishop told Harrison. “It's an unintended consequence but a consequence all the same.”