BATON ROUGE, La. — A near-annual proposal to put a cap on the amount of tuition paid through the TOPS program was rejected Wednesday by state lawmakers.
The House Education Committee voted 12-4 against the bill to limit the awards given through the free college tuition program, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
TOPS is a popular program across the state, but its costs are growing annually — to an estimated $168 million in the new fiscal year that begins July 1.
Republican Rep. Joe Harrison, sponsor of the cap proposal, said the state can't continue to afford such an increasing price tag, noting Louisiana has faced several years of budget gaps.
"We are in dire need of revenue," said Harrison, R-Napoleonville. He added, "We can no longer continue along this line without the danger of losing TOPS completely."
Opponents said any cuts to TOPS could limit students' ability to go to college.
LSU's student body president said the free tuition program doesn't cover fees charged above tuition and other expenses like groceries, housing and insurance.
"TOPS to me is not an expense of this state. It's an investment that this state makes in its future," said Cody Wells.
Harrison proposed capping TOPS scholarships at $1,600 per semester beginning in the 2013-14 school year, a measure that was estimated to save the state $56 million in its first year and $337 million over four years.
Gov. Bobby Jindal also objected to Harrison's bill. Stafford Palmieri, the governor's policy director, called the program an incredible asset to the state that has strengthened high school curriculum and helped increase college attendance.
"We support the program in its current posture and would oppose any changes to it," she said.
Louisiana has one of the most generous free college tuition programs in the country.
TOPS provides scholarships to Louisiana high school students who meet certain grade point average and college entrance test score requirements. The basic TOPS award covers tuition at any state public university. Higher achieving students can earn extra awards under the program.
Funding for TOPS continues to increase as the costs of college tuition rise, while needs-based aid in the state's Go Grant program has stayed flat at $26 million.
In January, a higher education study panel suggested a restructuring of TOPS, to give all students a flat grant amount, capped at the same level for everyone, rather than tied to the cost of tuition at an individual school.
Under the idea supported by the Governance Commission, lawmakers could set TOPS awards at two levels, for example, one at community colleges and another for four-year schools, with additional stipends continuing for those higher performing students. The commission said TOPS awards could be adjusted annually by the Consumer Price Index or some other inflationary measure.
House Bill 294 can be found at www.legis.state.la.us
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