- Associated Press - Thursday, January 11, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The Louisiana lawmaker leading a study of the TOPS free college tuition program Thursday recommended a rewrite of how awards are doled out to students, calling the 20-year-old program’s current structure “antiquated.”

Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, a Jennings Republican, wants to lessen the amount of tuition covered for students who reach the basic award for a four-year college, to give them a flat $4,000 payment for the year - well below the $5,600 average annual tuition rate in Louisiana.

He’s proposing to increase payments to higher-performing students.

Morrish offered the idea to a legislative task force reviewing TOPS amid cost concerns. Morrish is chairman of the task force, which will determine at another meeting whether to recommend the proposal to state lawmakers.

The suggestion would require a change in state law, and it wouldn’t impact students currently receiving TOPS awards. It’s estimated to save about $20 million a year.

TOPS, which began covering tuition costs in 1998, is credited with improving high school performance and college graduation rates in a poor state that has labored to boost education attainment. But costs have shot up to $290 million this school year, as more students reached the eligibility standards and as tuition on college campuses rose.

Morrish said the current structure “is an antiquated program that is in the 20th Century, not the 21st Century.” He said it doesn’t account for Louisiana’s enactment of admission standards on four-year campuses or the creation of a community and technical college system.

He said his idea wasn’t aimed at lowering TOPS’ costs, but at challenging students to improve their performance, by offering them larger tuition payments and stipends if they achieve higher grade-point averages and ACT college entrance exam scores in high school.

TOPS currently has tiers that offer stipends for higher-performing students, but tuition at a four-year school is covered for anyone who reaches a 2.5 GPA and 20 ACT score.

Morrish’s proposal would change that so the lowest award for a four-year school would pay only $4,000. Higher GPAs and ACT scores would be needed to cover the remaining cost of tuition.

“I know the $4,000 seems low. It’s still the most lucrative (college tuition) program in the United States of America at $4,000,” he said.

Sen. Wesley Bishop, a New Orleans Democrat, worried the amount would create financial hardships for students. Other lawmakers on the task force want to tweak the scores required to reach each level of the proposal.

Other proposals to change eligibility requirements and the payment terms also are being offered. Morrish said the task force will determine which ones to include in its list of suggestions to the full Legislature over additional meetings before a Feb. 15 report deadline.

Over the years, lawmakers have blocked efforts to make significant changes to TOPS. On Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards said he wasn’t interested in revising the much-beloved program, declaring: “I don’t favor changing TOPS; I favor funding TOPS.”

Morrish said he met with Edwards to lay out his ideas and received a “good response.”

Louisiana faces a $1 billion budget gap in the upcoming financial year that begins July 1. TOPS could be at risk if deep cuts have to be made. If the program isn’t fully funded, students receiving tuition payments receive a pro rata cut. That’s happened once before, during the last school year, when lawmakers covered only 70 percent of tuition costs for eligible students.


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