13,000 could lose TOPS scholarship under House budget plan

13,000 could lose TOPS scholarship under House budget plan

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The House budget plan for next year could cost 13,000 students their TOPS scholarships, according to the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA).

Sujuan Bouttee, the executive director of LOSFA, made that announcement Friday during an appearance before the Senate Finance Committee.

Currently, around 51,000 students receive tuition money from the state college scholarship program, meaning that about 25 percent could be cut off during the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

To fully fund the TOPS program, LOSFA estimates that they would need around $297 million. Last week, in an effort to balance the state's $600 million shortfall, House lawmakers carved $72 million out of the TOPS budget and gave the money to the state's partnership hospitals that treat the uninsured.

As a result of that cut, LOSFA leaders estimated Friday that students would need an ACT score of 22 in order to get the scholarship, up from the current score of 20. For reference, the average ACT score in Louisiana last year was just above 19.

In April, the governor introduced a budget plan that would have funded TOPS by $110 million. Under that plan, students would need to score at least 26 on the ACT to require for TOPS.

There are currently two pieces of legislation advancing through the State Capitol that would modify how TOPS is distributed. Rather than cutting students off entirely, the bills would allow everyone to keep their scholarships with an across-the-board cut.

Under the current House budget, each student would see a 25 percent cut.

The questions surrounding the future of TOPS have left many state university heads uneasy.

"We don't know what our budget is going to be at any four year institution or others in September because we don't know with the confusion in TOPS, what it has done for enrollment," said Dan Reneau, the interim president of the University of Louisiana system.

Speaking before the Senate Finance Committee, those system heads told lawmakers they are facing millions of dollars in budget reductions under the House budget plan.

Southern University System Chancellor Ray Belton said the Baton Rouge campus needs $7 million more than what is proposed for next year just to remain afloat.

LSU President F. King Alexander, meanwhile, said his university system is facing a 15 percent cut next year compared to the budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. This is the eight year in a row LSU has seen cuts.

"We've lost many out of state students who are afraid to come to Louisiana because of the instability of what our higher education systems have been dealing with," King said.

Those ongoing cuts have caused the schools to lose faculty as well as cut classes and programs, according to the system heads.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed frustration.

"We are grossly under-financing higher ed," Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie.

"We keep bring you guys back, with our students not knowing if they're going to be able to finish their courses on time because their classes have been cut. That is just unacceptable," said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge.

The Senate now has control of the budget and can modify it before sending it back to the House. For example, they could move more money back into the education and TOPS budgets.

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