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College students face uncertainty about TOPS money

by Minden Press-Herald

BATON ROUGE — Louisiana’s budget problems are creating uncertainty for thousands of college students who rely on the state’s TOPS free tuition program.

With a shortfall estimated at $750 million for next year’s budget, it’s not clear how much money the highly popular program will receive in the financial year that begins July 1.

It would take nearly $294 million to pay for all the students who are estimated to be eligible. Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislative leaders suggest the state won’t have enough money to cover that full amount.

Lawmakers on a House Appropriations subcommittee were told Tuesday that current law calls for giving the free tuition first to those students with the highest ACT scores. How many students will get a TOPS award likely won’t be known until June, when a final budget is crafted.

Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, said that is a problematic timeline for graduating high school seniors and current college students trying to decide what they can afford and which school they will attend.

“Students are making decisions now about where they’re going to go next fall,” Carter said.

The Edwards administration will unveil its recommendations for cutting TOPS — and other programs across state government — to the Appropriations Committee next Tuesday. That will provide a starting point for conversations about which students are on the chopping block.

Formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, TOPS provides free tuition to students who meet certain academic benchmarks. The program’s price tag has mushroomed, and lawmakers are weighing several ways to tweak TOPS to lessen its cost.

Sujuan Boutte, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, said incoming college freshmen and returning college students would receive notification within the next few months about their eligibility to receive TOPS financing.

But she said the notification would include language that the free tuition award “is contingent upon appropriations” from the Legislature and the governor.

TOPS wasn’t fully paid for in this year’s budget, leaving it $28 million short of the financing needed to cover the tuition costs of the eligible students. College campuses took the cut without passing it along to students.

The same approach isn’t expected next year, when the state’s budget gaps are larger.

In a wide-ranging committee hearing on higher education, leaders of Louisiana’s four public college systems warned lawmakers of damaging consequences if campuses take the deep cuts projected for them.
Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, responded that higher education officials weren’t doing enough to restructure. He said colleges likely won’t escape cuts, and he said he doesn’t expect lawmakers to support more tax hikes — on top of taxes passed earlier this year — to bail out the budget.

“Where are the new ideas? Where’s the vision?” Schroder said.

Commissioner of Higher Education Joe Rallo said the Board of Regents in prior years recommended campus mergers and other restructuring. And he noted lawmakers rejected those ideas.

Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, pushed back against Schroder’s questioning, saying it’s difficult for the schools to “create bold ideas without new money.”

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