BATON ROUGE — Louisiana has “failed” students in the TOPS free college tuition program and risks forcing some of them out of college or pushing them into greater debt because of upcoming cuts, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday.
Edwards’ comments came as thousands of students have been receiving notifications reminding them the TOPS awards will only cover 42 percent of tuition costs for the spring semester. That leaves students and parents to come up with the remaining 58 percent.
The Democratic governor had previously objected to Republican-led efforts to “front-load” the TOPS program — with near full funding in the fall semester and deep cuts to tuition payments in the spring. He used the notification of impending cuts to students to repeat that objection.
“As I said in June, the gimmick of ‘front loading’ TOPS gave students and parents false hope for the future. Today, as I said this summer, Louisiana’s budget problems are having a real impact on students and their families,” Edwards said in a statement.
TOPS would have cost nearly $300 million this school year to fully cover tuition for the more than 50,000 eligible students. Lawmakers allocated about $90 million less than that.
Edwards sought to avert cuts to the program with increased tax hikes earlier this year, but Republican lawmakers balked, passing an array of tax increases but stopping short of the dollar figure sought by the governor.
GOP House leaders pushed for the TOPS payments to be front-loaded in the hopes that more money than expected would arrive from the tax hikes they passed. That hasn’t happened, and instead, Louisiana’s budget problems have worsened.
The state faces a $315 million deficit left over from the budget year that ended June 30 and isn’t expected to meet its income projections in the current budget year, widening the shortfall. The Edwards administration is expected to present its budget-cutting plan Friday to close last year’s deficit.
The governor said he won’t seek to shrink TOPS further to close budget gaps, however. He also said he hopes to give more money to the program in the next financial year.
“When we leave our kids with more student debt than necessary, we’ve failed them. Going forward, it is my hope that we can restore funding to TOPS because too many students across the state are dependent upon the assistance it offers,” Edwards said.
Whether lawmakers will agree to raise new dollars in their 2017 budget and tax legislative session remains unclear, however. They’ll already be debating whether to keep what revenue they have, facing a financial cliff they created for themselves, because they attached expiration dates to some taxes passed this year.