BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A year after lawmakers underfunded TOPS for the first time ever, a new state panel met for the first time Wednesday to try to determine how to make the program sustainable. Doing so may involve revisiting old ideas that have failed in the past.
Over the scholarship program's history, state lawmakers have filed about 350 bills to modify TOPS, according to the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA). Most of those ideas were tossed in the trashcan, while only about 75 became law.
"Just about every one of the issues that we talk about in reforming TOPS or changing TOPS have been addressed by the legislature," said Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings.
Morrish is chairing the new task force, which was put together after another round of bills modifying TOPS failed during the 2017 legislative session. During the 2016-17 school year, TOPS was funded at just around 70 percent, meaning students had to foot the bill for the rest of tuition. TOPS covers tuition costs.
A year later, TOPS is fully funded. However, the state's budget is still teetering on the edge, meaning the future of the scholarship remains in limbo. "It's been a struggle every year, for 14 years, to fund it, but to me, you have to have a priority," said Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge.
The program's price tag has ballooned over the past two decades. Back during the 1998-99 school year, the program cost $54 million for the year. By the 2015-16 school year, the cost had increased almost five fold to $255 million. During that same time frame, the number of students receiving the award only doubled, from about 24,000 in 1998-99 to 50,000 in 2015-16.
Instead, it was the price of tuition that really exploded during that time, driven in part by decreased state funding for public colleges. During the 1998-99 school year, the average tuition cost for a 4-year school was just over $2,000. By 2015, that spiked to nearly to nearly $8,000. The, last year, amid rising tuition costs and state budget shortfalls, TOPS was underfunded for the first time ever.
"It is startling. We need to do something to make sure this program is sustainable for the long haul," said Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge.
In coming months, the panel will meet several times. Morrish says they will debate many different reform ideas, some of which will be familiar. This includes increasing GPA requirements and requiring students who leave the state after graduation to pay back part of their award.
However, Morrish warns the task may not reach a consensus on the best path forward. The panel is divided between Democrats and Republicans and between those who view the scholarship as a needs-based award and a merit-based award. "There could be multiple pieces of legislation that come out of here that are in direct conflict to one another," said Morrish.
However, if the panel cannot speak with one voice, it could make getting the full legislature on board with reforms rather difficult. The next public meeting is set for Thursday, September 28.