Senate-House panel to study TOPS

BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA / WGMB) - A joint Senate-House task force will begin closely examining all aspects of the state-funded TOPS program in September.  The program was established 20 years ago. 

“It’s time, 20 years later, to take a hard look at TOPS,” said Sen. Dan. Morrish, who’s SCR 110 created the task force. “To a large degree, TOPS has not changed at all in 20 years, except the cost. When it began in 1997, it cost $35 million. Now, it’s a $350 million program.” The increase follows the steady rise in college’s tuition. 

SCR110 directs the task force to study TOPS, including reviewing the program's purpose and history, its relationship to tuition and fees and its relationship to financial aid programs. The panel will also look at ways to ensure the program’s long-term viability.

The resolution calls for Morrish, the chair of the Senate Education Committee who also will chair the task force, and Rep. Nancy Landry, the chair of the House Education Committee, to serve on the panel and name two members each. Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras also appointed two members.

Landry appointed Representatives Ted James and Thomas Carmody. Barras named Representatives Franklin Foil and Gary Carter. Senators serving on the panel with Morrish are Wesley Bishop, Ed Price, Bodi White and Mike Walsworth. 

Landry said she expects the lawmakers appointed to the task force to present diverse ideas, because they represent different populations and have different ideas about what TOPS should be.

“Some legislators want it to be need-based, some want it to be strictly merit-based and some want a combination,” Landry said.  “That’s why there’s been no consensus to make major changes. Unlike committees during legislative sessions that can spend only a limited time dealing with subjects, the task force can take a deep dive into the public policy behind it. 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 legislature needs to develop a policy that can “serve the greatest number of students without growing so big we can’t afford to keep it.”

During the past 20 years, more than 290,770 students have benefited from TOPS assistance in paying for their college educations at universities and technical and community colleges.

Morrish estimates that hundreds of bills have been filed over the years seeking to change TOPS, but almost all have failed.

Examples include tightening academic requirements for obtaining and retaining TOPS, limiting the amount to be paid, setting an income limit, changing it from a scholarship to a stipend to pay part of the cost, limiting it to upper classmen and making it a loan that has to be repaid if a student doesn’t graduate.

Additional classes for qualifying for TOPS have been added over the years. Morrish’s plan for scaling back TOPS awards equally in the event of insufficient funding was approved in 2016, as was Sen. Jack Donahue’s legislation essentially setting a cap on TOPS and breaking it’s tie to tuition increases. 

Because TOPS was funded at only 70 percent last year, Donahue’s bill was altered this year to set the cap at the higher funding level in this year’s budget. Morrish said he also hopes the study can clear up some misconceptions about the TOPS program.

“People talk about the huge drop-out rate and how we have to pay for students who weren’t ready for college,” Morrish said. “Early on, it was 28 percent, but today, it’s eight percent because we have admission standards. Twenty years ago, most universities didn’t have admissions standards and there were no community colleges.”

When the study is complete, the task force will file a report to the legislature. Landry said she agrees that the study panel might not suggest changes, but it will provide a clearer picture of how TOPS operates and who it serves.

 

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