There aren’t many cows in Louisiana that have become more sacred than TOPS to a lot of families, but in recent years that ever-popular program has been coming under increased scrutiny. Unlike a number of other programs that have attracted legislative attention, no one is saying there’s anything wrong with it or that there has been some sort of abuse or fraud.
No, just about everyone loves TOPS. The problem is simply money. At a time when state tax revenues have been falling considerably short of state spending, TOPS has become inextricably tied up in the state’s ongoing budget mess. As a result, you’re seeing reluctant legislators filing more bills than ever aimed at reducing the program’s costs.
To some degree that’s out of necessity. For the last few years, the cost of TOPS has risen by an average of around 12-percent per year. For the 2013-14 school year, Louisiana spent about $223 million on TOPS. For 2016-17 projections are that it will be close to $300 million. To a slight degree that reflects an increase in the number of students taking advantage of the program, but the real culprit is the annual increases in tuition that have been instituted to mitigate the huge cuts that have come in state funding for higher education.
Stated simply, TOPS is a program that pays full tuition at Louisiana public colleges, and when tuition goes up so does the cost to the state for TOPS. Exacerbating that is the fact that the percentage increases in tuition in Louisiana over the last several years have been the highest in the country, so TOPS expenses have been accelerating at a fairly rapid pace.
When it comes to curbing the cost of TOPS, the approach that probably has the most traction is one that the Legislature passed last year and which Governor Bobby Jindal vetoed. That one essentially “decouples” TOPS from future tuition increases unless the Legislature makes a specific appropriation to increase the award. What the means in practical terms is that if a TOPS grant is worth, say, $5,000 this year it will still be worth $5,000 next year, even if tuition goes up.
It doesn’t really lower the cost of the program, but it stops the growth and makes it more sustainable for the future. CABL supports that approach, as does the governor, and it seems likely the Legislature will, too. But there are a number of other bills that target the program in different ways, some of which we haven’t quite seen before. They include:
- A differentiated award based on the class a student is in. Under that proposal a freshman would receive 80-percent of the cost of tuition, a sophomore 90-percent, and juniors and seniors the full amount. That would save some money for the state and create an incentive for students to continue on.
- Higher eligibility criteria. There are differing proposals filed this session that either increase the GPA for eligibility for TOPS or the ACT score that’s needed. Those have never gained much traction in years past.
- TOPS repayment. There are a couple of approaches suggested here. One is that if a student who receives a TOPS award fails to maintain eligibility while in school or drops out the student would have to pay all or part of the award back. Another requires students to remain in the state a certain number of years after graduating or face a payback penalty, as well.
- Study in a high-quality job field. Under this proposal students would not be eligible for a TOPS award unless they are pursuing a degree, skill or occupational training that would qualify them for employment in a four or five star job as determined by the Louisiana Workforce Commission.
- Reduce TOPS award as a function of other need-based aid . This proposal takes into account other financial aid a TOPS eligible student receives and reduces their TOPS award by the amount of needs-based aid they receive if it can be legally applied to tuition.
Whether any of these other approaches pick up any steam remains to be seen. Generally, lawmakers have been reluctant to tinker much with TOPS and some of these ideas represent major shifts in the program which might also carry with them a veto threat from the governor.
Finally, another possibility that has never really been a possibility in years past, is that given the current budget shortfall of $750 million, funding to the TOPS program could actually be reduced. Though that’s never been done, it’s not quite the longshot it used to be, and it would clearly get the attention of parents and students who are often agnostic about the various happenings going on at the Capitol.
Then again, considering the backlash that would surely follow, that’s probably not an option most folks should spend a lot of time worrying about.