Lawmakers upset over proposal to slash TOPS scholarship program by 80 percent

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Jay Dardenne, Gov. John Bel Edwards' commissioner of administration (left) and State Budget Director Barry Dusse answer questions about Edwards' budget proposal yesterday. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY WOLF
  • PHOTO BY ASHLEY WOLF
  • Jay Dardenne, Gov. John Bel Edwards' commissioner of administration (left) and State Budget Director Barry Dusse answer questions about Edwards' budget proposal yesterday.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposal to slash the TOPS college scholarship program by 80 percent to staunch an upcoming budget shortfall has raised concerns among both Republican and Democratic legislators and the nearly 49,000 students who rely on it.

The governor proposed cutting the popular program in a doomsday budget released on Monday. Edwards made clear that he was not in favor of the cut. But he said that it might be necessary if he and Republican lawmakers could not agree on how to close a $1 billion shortfall in state revenues expected in July.

Edwards’ proposal eliminates the state general fund dedication to the Taylor Opportunity Program, aka TOPS. The program will still be funded through the statutory dedication of a dedicated tobacco settlement fund, “a very meager, token amount,” Jay Dardenne, the governor’s commissioner of administration, said.

The proposal recommends a further cut in tuition aid with a 50 percent decrease in funding for Go Grants, a need-based grant for low to moderate-income college students.
Overall, the proposed reductions would total $272 million.

There is “not a cut on the list that I support making,” Edwards said.

The governor said he believes that workforce development, which relies on higher education, is the key to creating jobs for Louisiana’s future. Potential business investors want to have trained and educated workers, Edwards explained: “We cut higher education at our own peril.”

State funding for colleges and universities had stabilized over the past year after nearly a decade of steady reductions. Dardenne said prospects for increasing college enrollments had improved but that the proposed cuts could prompt students to rethink those decisions.

Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said Louisiana students would seek education out of state because rising tuition is “pricing them out.” She added that Louisiana colleges are losing professors and football recruits because of economic uncertainty.

Rep. Beryl Amedée, R-Houma, said students graduating from high school and currently enrolled in college depend on the promise of TOPS to plan their futures. Nearly 49,000 students received TOPS in the 2017 fall semester, according to the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance. “I think that cutting TOPS suddenly and so severely would be a train wreck,” Amedée said. “If somebody wants to reduce TOPS in the future gradually, then we can discuss that if it’s necessary.”
Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, commented that defunding higher education would be “very problematic” for the state’s relationships with industrial partners “as we try to create the jobs of tomorrow.”

In the 2016 legislative session, the Legislature increased the grade point average threshold to qualify for a TOPS Performance Award from 3.0 to 3.25 and increased the GPA requirement to qualify for a TOPS Honors Award from 3.0 to 3.50. The changes are effective for high school graduates of 2021.

Both of those awards cover full tuition at state universities. The Performance Award also comes with a $400 annual stipend, while students who receive the Honors Award receive $800 stipends.

In 2016, the Legislature also rendered TOPS awards subject to reduction in times of a budget shortfall. It also enabled students to opt out of TOPS during a budget shortfall.
Edwards urged legislators to call a special session in February to resolve the looming budget shortfall so that families and students have time to prepare for increased tuition and costs.

“The longer we wait, the more harm we cause,” Edwards said. “There is still time to come together and fix it.”


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