- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. John Bel Edwards tried Friday to reduce fears about the threat of cuts to the TOPS free college tuition program, saying Louisiana students who receive the aid won’t see increased tuition bills this semester even if financing is reduced.

The Edwards administration announced a day earlier that TOPS may get $28 million less than the funding it needs to cover all eligible students in the budget year that ends June 30 because of Louisiana’s deep financial troubles. That caused an onslaught of worry from students and their families that college costs could unexpectedly rise this semester.

In response, the Democratic governor issued a statement emphasizing that colleges will take the $28 million cut to their budgets without passing it along to students.

“The universities will absorb the TOPS shortfall this year. Students will not receive any bills for this shortfall or lose any TOPS awards this semester,” Edwards said.

With that news, the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, which had temporarily stalled TOPS payments to campuses, announced it would resume processing the payments next week.

TOPS, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, provides free tuition to students who meet certain academic benchmarks. Campuses submit tuition bills to the student financial assistance office for reimbursement.

Although students are being shielded from any TOPS cuts this year, college leaders are trying to determine how they will cope with the $28 million reduction.

LSU System President F. King Alexander said the details “are still pretty murky” on how the cut would be divvied up among campuses, whether it would be shared proportionally or fall to the campuses with the largest number of TOPS students.

But Alexander agreed students shouldn’t be made to pay tuition after being promised those costs would be covered by the state.

“We want to protect our students. You just can’t have the rug pulled out from under them midsemester and ask them to come up with $2,000,” he said.

The TOPS program is highly popular, but its costs have mushroomed to $265 million in this year’s budget. That’s an estimated $28 million short of the financing needed to fully cover the tuition costs of the eligible students, a gap Edwards said he didn’t expect to be filled because of the state’s financial woes.

Louisiana has shortfall ranging from $850 million to $950 million that must be closed by June 30. Edwards has called a special legislative session that begins Sunday to decide how to rebalance the $25 billion budget and how to address a more than $2 billion hole next year.

The Democratic governor wants tax increases, but Republican lawmakers who make up a majority of the Legislature have shown resistance to tax hikes.

Although Edwards said students won’t feel any reduction in TOPS payments this year, he warned that if lawmakers don’t find new dollars to pay for the program in the fiscal year that begins July 1, “fewer TOPS scholarships will be awarded next year.”

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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