The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students could be in for some major changes in this legislative session. Twenty-three bills, not counting House Bills 1 and 2, which determine the budget and capital outlay plans, look to change — or eliminate — the program that provides free tuition money to Louisiana scholars.
Senate Bill 214, pending in the finance committee, and HB 512, pending in the appropriations committee, are constitutional amendments that, if passed, would eliminate the Millennium Trust. The Trust includes the TOPS Fund, the Health Excellence Fund and the Education Excellence Fund. TOPS receives 100 percent of the money received from the multistate tobacco settlement agreement and one-third of annual interest on the trust.
All other bills are pending in House or Senate education committees.
Four bills would shift where TOPS money can be used. The bills largely focus on proprietary and cosmetology schools and technical programs.
SB 169 would drop private colleges, proprietary and cosmetology schools and technical programs at colleges and universities from TOPS.
HB 848 and HB 914 also would prevent students from using TOPS funds for cosmetology and proprietary schools and prevent the TOPS-Tech Early Start Award from funding courses offered by training providers.
HB 852 would limit TOPS-Tech Award funds only to programs that will qualify the student for a four- or five-star job as designated by the Louisiana Workforce Commission.
Could students have to repay?
Four bills tackle how to make students who don't graduate within a certain time frame repay the state.
HB 846 would require TOPS-aided graduates to maintain ties to Louisiana such as residency, voter's registration, driver's licence, vehicle registration or state tax filings for each year he or she received funds. If someone failed to comply, they would have to pay the state back for each year of noncompliance.
HB 104 would require the Louisiana Student Financial Assistance Commission to collect repayment from TOPS students who fail to obtain a degree within the time limit set by the program to repay unless they are obstructed by military service or permanent disability.
HB 581 also would require repayment, but amounts are staggered based on how many credit hours the student had obtained, and it allows for 11 special circumstances that might prevent repayment. HB 759 would require total repayment if a student drops out, allowing for the same special circumstances as HB 581.
What requirements will they have to meet?
Seven pieces of proposed legislation would change requirements to maintain eligibility or qualify for the program. Rounding down test scores and increasing minimum GPA requirements both were suggested in multiple bills.
HB 390 would fix the TOPS minimum disbursement to the 2016-17 amount, unless raised by the Legislature, and specifies that "that a student have a minimum ACT score equal to or greater than the state average, but never less than 20, but specifies that the state average be truncated to a whole number instead of being rounded to the nearest whole number." SB 174 would do the same.
SB 329 would increase the minimum GPA for an Opportunity Award to 2.75 from 2.5, for a Performance Award to 3.25 from 3.0 and for an Honors Award to 3.5 from a 3.0.
HB 437 would increase the minimum GPA to maintain eligibility to 2.5 after 24 hours of credit earned and 2.75 after 48 hours of credit earned. This applies to students graduating high school in 2019-20.
SB 88 would increase the required GPA for students graduating high school in 2019-20 to 2.75 from 2.5 and recodifies the same academic exceptions as in the present law.
SB 89 would raise the minimum ACT score to 21 from 20 and recodifies the same academic exceptions as in the present law.
HB 296 would add Anatomy and Physiology to the high school science courses that ensure eligibility for TOPS.
How much will students get?
Six bills determine how much money each student could receive.
HB 438 would create a new award, the TOPS-Tech Transfer Award, "available for two years in pursuit of skill or occupational training and for two years in pursuit of a baccalaureate degree." The proposal would grant the same stipend as TOP and TOPS-Tech.
HB 439 would let public colleges and university management boards increase tuition and excepts TOPS students from having to pay that increase.
HB 279 would weight TOPS disbursements. Freshmen at public universities and colleges would get 80 percent of tuition paid; sophomores would get 90 percent of the full tuition.
HB 367 would deduct need-based financial aid awarded to individual students from their total TOPS disbursement.
SB 79 and SB 81 would lock students' disbursement amounts in at the 2016-17 rate unless increased by the legislature.