TOPS Panel Reviews Louisiana's Famed Tuition Program

BATON ROUGE, La. (LOCAL 33) (FOX 44) - It's what some legislators have called the third rail of Louisiana politics -- touch the TOPS college tuition program and feel the voters' wrath. Still, members of a joint legislative committee convened anyway, seeking reforms to the two-decade initiative.

"If our kids' education is a priority in the state of Louisiana, it's something we have to fund every year," said Sen. Mack "Bodi" White, one of 10 members on the panel..

Since launching in 1998, the annual number of TOPS recipients has more than doubled, from 23,600 students in 1998 to nearly 52,000 last year. It's set to cost some $291 million this year, nearly 10 times its price tag at inception. With Louisiana staring down a billion-dollar budget deficit next year, those long tied to TOPS stated their visions.

"It's unfair to the students to prepare for four years, and every year, we tell them we don't know it's going to be funded," said James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, founded by the TOPS program's namesake. "TOPS was never intended for the best and brightest. TOPS was intended to better prepared students for success in college."

TOPS was initially limited to students of families with annual incomes below $25,000. More than 800,000 students have received scholarships from the program. It currently accounts for 2.7 percent of the state's general fund.

The task force also heard from former state Rep. Charles McDonald, who sponsored the bill that proposed the initiative. He suggested that lawmakers are responsible for the program's growing costs, since they have repeatedly cut state funds to higher education.

McDonald also proposed that members consider adjusting the academic requirements for TOPS. Students are currently pressed to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average and score at least a 20 on the ACT exam.

"Usually they say, if you can do this, I'll give you this," said McDonald. "But when they don't do that, then you reward them anyway. We're sending wrong signals."

But a bill seeking to raise that requirement failed in this year's legislative session. Its sponsor, Rep. Franklin Foil, is on the task force. "I think we also want to make sure we keep the best and brightest in the state, increasing some requirements of the program."

The task force may also consider whether dropouts should pay back their rewards and whether the program should be more needs-based. These are hefty undertakings, given that legislators have rejected more than 200 proposed changes to TOPS.

"Historically, there have not been a lot of changes to limit or restrict the program," said Sujuan Boutte, executive director of the student financial assistance office.

Task force member Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish -- who also chairs the Senate Education Committee -- says because legislators are not currently in session, members of the panel will have more time and effort to craft more passable reform.

"When there are lots of other bills on the agenda, during a session when there are budgetary issues, we're wanting to focus just on TOPS, to figure out where the program goes from here," Morrish said.

The task force will meet again Sept. 28, and will convene at least twice a month through February, when members are due to draft any proposals they develop.

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