Dear students: TOPS funded; come home

BATON ROUGE -- Louisiana's higher education leaders, tired of having top faculty and students picked off by empires like the University of Alabama, are touting TOPS funding in a goal-line stand against more poaching.

"You can rest assured that all of our schools are reaching out to students and making sure they know TOPS is fully funding and using it as a competitive advantage," University of Louisiana System President Jim Henderson said in an interview with USA Today Network.

Henderson, LSU President F. King Alexander and others have testified countless times about losing ground to other states as funding for TOPS and university operating budgets declined. They often invoke the hated University of Alabama as a point of emphasis.

"Yes, well, we are spending thousands less per student than our competitors, including Alabama," Henderson said, laughing.

In April, Alexander said, "We've got to do something to keep from being a poaching ground."

Though next year's higher education funding isn't exactly flush, it is, as Alexander told USA Today Network, "the best higher education budget we've been able to get in perhaps a decade."

Just after the state budget won final legislative approval last week, the LSU Alumni Association sent the following email: "LSU is going to try to recruit some of those high school seniors who chose to go out-of-state because they were uncertain about TOPS."

More than 50,000 students rely on Louisiana's popular college scholarship program, which costs about $300 million when fully funded.

This year, for the first time in its 20-year history, TOPS funding was cut by 30 percent, forcing students to come up with as much as $1,800 to $2,000 to make up the difference.

Enrollment didn't suffer as some had feared, but Henderson said he believes that was because the reduction of the scholarship award was back loaded in the second semester.

"Students and parents were still holding out hope something could have been done," Henderson said.

But in the end, there was no money to prop up students during the second semester and all eyes were cast toward the Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards to see what they would do in next year's budget.

"I believe having TOPS fully funded will convince those students entertaining other offers to decide to stay," Henderson said.

But there's no guarantee TOPS will remain intact beyond next year, especially with the state facing a $1.2 billion fiscal cliff in 2018.

Henderson, unlike some of his colleagues, believes TOPS should be fully funded even at the expense of operating revenue for colleges and universities.

"As far as I'm concerned it's a sacred commitment to students who have already based their decisions on the scholarships," Henderson said.

"I think there's ample room for discussion about TOPS reform moving forward for future generations of students, but not for those already here," he said. "Once you make that commitment you have to uphold it."

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1

© 2017 WWL-TV


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