BATON ROUGE — Awards from Louisiana’s TOPS program are no longer guaranteed to fully cover tuition if the costs grow in the future.
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office announced Tuesday that the governor has signed a cost containment bill for the college tuition payment program that could force students to pay more out of pocket for college, even if they get a TOPS award.
It was a reversal from last year, when then-Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed the same measure.
The bill locks in the TOPS payment rate at next year’s tuition level, unless lawmakers vote to raise payments. If tuition grows larger but lawmakers don’t vote to boost the TOPS payment rate, students will have to pay more in the 2017-18 school year and beyond.
The legislation, by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, won support from the Senate with a 36-0 vote and the House with a 74-20 vote.
Supporters said they were trying to make sure Louisiana can continue to afford TOPS amid ongoing financial constraints. The nearly 20-year-old program, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is slated to cost $294 million in the upcoming 2016-17 year to cover more than 46,000 students.
Worries about the cost of TOPS have grown as the state has faced continuing budget shortfalls and as colleges have boosted their tuition rates to compensate for cuts to their state financing. Each increase in tuition drives up the cost of TOPS.
But the program is much beloved among middle-class families, who benefit disproportionately from the tuition aid. Also, the program is credited with helping more students get college degrees in a state with low levels of educational attainment.
Efforts to tweak the program had repeatedly failed over the years. Donahue’s approach is the first significant change to gain legislative support.
Opponents of Donahue’s bill said the change to “decouple” TOPS from tuition rates violates an agreement with Louisiana’s students, who believed if they reached certain performance benchmarks in school and on the ACT college entrance exam, the state would pay for their tuition.
Because of state budget gaps, it’s unclear if students would even get full tuition funding next year or only partial awards.