TOPS task force chairman proposes tuition award redesign

BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA) - The Louisiana legislator overseeing a task force on the TOPS tuition program is recommending a change in how students receive awards.

"The program developed over 20 years ago is an antiquated program that's in the 20th century and not the 21st century," Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish (R-Jennings) said Thursday. "It doesn't necessarily align with 21st century needs."

Under Morrish's proposal, students given the basic TOPS Opportunity award would get a flat $4,000 annual stipend, a drop from the current aid amount. The plan would also remove the $400 stipends associated with the next-tier TOPS Performance award. TOPS Honors students would receive $1,500 a year an increase from the current $800 stipend. Grade-point average requirements would remain the same.

Morrish is also considering a new top tier for recipients, dubbed Honors Plus. The award, to include the full 2016-17 tuition amount and a $2,500 annual stipend, would be for students who earn a 4.0 GPA and a 30 or above on the ACT.

"These are the students that are being siphoned off by our competitors in other states," he said.

Since TOPS began covering tuition costs in 1998, legislators have left the program largely untouched, thwarting most reform efforts. More students have met the eligibility guidelines in recent years, as the average annual tuition at a four-year school in Louisiana has risen to $5,620. These factors have ballooned the program's fiscal footprint. Funds to TOPS occupied $290 million in the $28 billion state budget passed in June.

Morrish estimates his proposals would save the state $20 million.

"I have a few ideas for where that money could go," he said. "I'm hoping it goes to education."

As the state faces a $1 billion budget gap in the fiscal year beginning July 1, Gov. John Bel Edwards has defended his support for TOPS. On Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards voiced skepticism about reworking the program.

"I don't favor changing TOPS," the governor told the Press Club of Baton Rouge. "I favor funding TOPS."

The changes would not affect students currently receiving TOPS awards. The task force reviewing the program will vote on proposed changes at a future meeting, before sending recommendations to legislators by Feb. 15.


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