Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday that there will be no more cuts to TOPS this year and called for state government to "do better" when it comes to investing in Louisiana's students.
The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS), a scholarship program started in the late 1990s to keep Louisiana high school graduates in state universities, faces a huge cut in state funding this spring due to budget shortfalls. Students will be eligible for only 41.8 percent of the total award for the spring semester, according to the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.
“When we leave our kids with more student debt than necessary, we’ve failed them," Edwards said in a statement. "Going forward, it is my hope that we can restore funding to TOPS because too many students across the state are dependent upon the assistance it offers.
"In fact, despite the budget shortfalls we’re currently facing, we will not be making further cuts to this program," he continued. "Today, we risk having an influx of students drop out of college or leave with burdensome debt. We can and must do better."
He criticized the legislature's decision this summer to "front load" cuts to TOPS, funding awards at nearly 100 percent in the fall with the hope that other revenue — largely from taxes — would become available to restore the program before spring. The strategy also would allow universities and families to look for other options to cover costs, like financial aid and grants.
“As I said in June, the gimmick of ‘front loading’ TOPS gave students and parents false hope for the future," Edwards said. "Today, as I said this summer, Louisiana’s budget problems are having a real impact on students and their families. The upcoming regular session in 2017 will give us another opportunity to stabilize Louisiana’s budget and invest in our children’s futures, and I’m asking the legislature to work with me, so that Louisiana’s students are not left to shoulder the burden of our state’s financial problems.”
If left unaddressed, last year's legislation would continue to impact students beyond this year. Act 28 from the 2016 session established the award at the 2016-17 level and permanently reduced TOPS to whatever level is paid out this year, unless the legislature increases the award amount by law in future sessions.
As they face losses to TOPS awards, students also face higher tuition rates, which have risen to help make up for eight years of cuts in state appropriations to universities. This year's increase to tuition was the smallest in a decade, according to the governor's statement.
As the USA Today Network Louisiana reported in October, the cuts look a little different at each school. Maximum TOPS payments this spring range from about $434 to $671 at two-year schools in the Louisiana Technical & Community College System. They hover above $1,000 for most schools in the Louisiana State University System, going as high as $1,559 for the flagship campus.
Payments in the University of Louisiana System also stick close to the $1,000 mark, reaching as high as $1,272 for the University of New Orleans. It costs more than $3,000 for tuition alone for a UNO student taking 12 credit hours, or a full load of classes, in the spring semester.
Higher ed leaders expect some institutions to lose students because they can't afford to fill that gap.
"We don't know the full impact, but we know it's not going to be positive," UL System interim President Dan Reneau said.
His system saw 34 percent of its undergraduates — 27,000 students — on TOPS last year. He doesn't know what that number will be after cuts this year.
"We haven't been through this before," Reneau. "(But) it will affect the number of students attending higher education institutions, no doubt ... and perhaps the poorer students will be hurt the most."