BATON ROUGE— With Louisiana’s much-beloved free college tuition program costing nearly $300 million a year, lawmakers are at odds over how to stabilize the expense and whether the state can afford to keep paying for thousands to attend college each year.

They have repeatedly disagreed over how — and whether — to rein in the TOPS program, even as financially-strapped Louisiana has grappled with years of budget gaps. So, they created a legislative study group, which began its work Wednesday, to wade into the thorny discussion.

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 an estimated $291 million this school year, as more students reached the eligibility standards and as tuition on college campuses rose.

Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, a Baton Rouge area Republican, said it’s “been a struggle” to find the dollars to pay for TOPS in recent years, but added, “our kids’ education is a priority in the state of Louisiana.”

The program, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, began with 23,600 students in its first year and has reached nearly 51,000 students annually, according to data from the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.

To receive the basic award covering tuition at a four-year university, high school students generally must have a 2.5 grade point average, complete a certain slate of classes and get a 20 or higher on the ACT college entrance exam. The award covers eight semesters.

While similar tuition aid programs in other states often have dedicated financing sources, Louisiana’s TOPS program gets a small portion of its money from a dedicated tobacco settlement fund and more than three-quarters of its cost from general state tax dollars.

And in an indirect way, lawmakers helped drive up to the cost of the program further. As they repeatedly cut state financing for higher education over the last decade, campuses responded by raising tuition, which boosts the costs of a TOPS award.

With the ballooning price tag, lawmakers didn’t fully fund the program last year, instead covering only 70 percent of tuition costs for eligible students. They returned to full financing this year, but question if that’s sustainable long-term.

Sujuan Boutte, executive director of the student financial assistance office, told the study group that 75 legislative adjustments to TOPS have been enacted over the last two decades. A majority of them expanded the program.

“Historically, there have not been a lot of changes to restrict or limit the program,” she said.
Last year, lawmakers locked in the tuition payment rate at the current tuition level. That could cost students more if lawmakers don’t boost TOPS payments when schools raise tuition.

Still, that won’t stop all increases in the program. Boutte’s estimates showed more students are expected to become eligible, which would cause slight growth in TOPS over time.

Boutte said statistics show students who attend college with TOPS awards graduate in higher percentages than those without TOPS. James Caillier, a booster for the program, said TOPS is forcing students to take more rigorous courses in high school.

“TOPS was never intended for the best and brightest. TOPS was intended to better prepare students for success in college,” said Caillier, executive director of a foundation created by Pat Taylor, the philanthropist who designed a TOPS precursor and for whom the program is named.