TOPS is likely to change; how might it affect you?

What will Louisiana's popular scholarship program TOPS look like when it's time to send your child to college?

"It's my understanding everything is on the table," said state Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, one of 10 members of a joint legislative task force set to study TOPS beginning Sept. 6.

Should academic requirements be raised? Will the scholarship shift from merit based to needs based?

If the Legislature chooses to reduce funding in times of budget cuts as it did last year, will the pain be distributed equally as the current law requires, or will it keep some students whole and leave others behind?

Might students have to sign a contract to stay in Louisiana for a certain amount of time following graduation? Should dropouts have to pay back their awards?

Virtually all previous bills to make major changes to TOPS during its 20-year history have died in the Legislature for fear of retribution from voters.

"It's the single most popular state program among my constituents," said Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, a member of the task force. "A woman came up to me last week and said, 'Well, I like you a lot better this year.' That's because we didn't cut TOPS. It makes a real difference."

In fact, the only reason the task force is considering changing what may have become the third rail of Louisiana politics, perhaps replacing homestead exemption, is the state can't afford for it to keep growing.

State funding for TOPS was about $300 million this year, nearly 10 times what it cost when the program was introduced two decades ago.

"I'm concerned abut the financial stability for the long term," said task force member Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge. "We need to look at a comprehensive approach to keep it viable."

"It’s time, 20 years later, to take a hard look at TOPS,” said Sen. Dan. Morrish, R-Jennings, whose Senate Concurrent Resolution 110 created the task force.

Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, chairs the House Education Committee and is a member of the task force.

“It’s been so long ago, a lot of legislators don’t know the history behind TOPS, so we have to go through the history every year,” Landry said. "The task force can take a deep dive into the public policy behind it."

The goal of the panel, Landry said, should be focused on reforms that "serve the greatest number of students without growing so big we can’t afford to keep it.”

About 52,000 students qualified for TOPS this year. 

But Carter said his focus isn't creating standards to shrink the pool of students who qualify for TOPS. Instead, he wants to explore ways to find funding streams that would support more students securing TOPS.

"I want to expand TOPS rather than limit it," Carter said. "I'm not looking for ways to diminish opportunities for our students."

Carter, however, said he would consider requiring TOPS graduates to live and work in Louisiana for a certain amount of time following graduation.

 

"One of the primary goals of TOPS is to keep our best and brightest here," he said. "Let's find a funding mechanism and perhaps ask them to stay here for a time after the state has paid for their college education."

Unlike Carter, Foil and Walsworth believe the academic requirements for TOPS should be raised and the program should remain strictly merit based.

Foil's bill to raise the GPA from 2.5 to 2.75 for the most popular award, TOPS Opportunity, was killed in the Senate last year in favor of the creating the task force for a comprehensive study.

"An important factor, I believe, should be raising the academic requirements, specifically the GPA," Foil said. "Once you give children goals, they tend to rise to the occasion."

Walsworth agreed, saying, "When you raise the bar the kids will meet it."

But if that's the case, it would be counter to a goal of saving money.

"That's a good point," Walsworth said.

Other task force members include: Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge; Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport; Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; Sen. Ed Price, D-Gonzales; and Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge.

Other task force members include: Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge; Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport; Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; Sen. Ed Price, D-Gonzales; and Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge.

Morrish, who will chair the panel, said the committee may or may not make recommendations for legislation that would change TOPS.

“If legislation is presented, we will present facts,” he said.

But most members hope to reach a consensus that would lead to legislation.

"I hope we do," Foil said. "My goal is to come up with several recommendations we can put into legislation."

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

© 2017 WWL-TV


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