Louisiana's TOPS award: How much does it really pay for?

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Despite being untouchable at the state capitol, TOPS is only worth so much. The executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) laid out the grim reality for a panel of state lawmakers Wednesday.

"TOPS is by no means covering the cost to go to school," said Sujuan Boutte.

The baseline TOPS scholarship only pays for the cost of tuition. When room and board, books, and supplies are added in, students are still left with a substantial price tag. Fees are also not covered by TOPS. As state lawmakers have cut college budgets over the past decade, university leader have boosted fees to help make up the difference.

"The state is now paying one-third of the costs, and the students are paying two-thirds of the cost. And we're trying to help the students by giving them state money to overcome the two-thirds," said James Callier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation.

How does it all add up? For the average TOPS Opportunity Award recipient at LSU's main campus who is not living at home, the scholarship only covers an estimated 22.7 percent the cost of attendance, according to data from the Board of Regents.

At Southern University's Baton Rouge campus, TOPS only covers an estimated 23.3 percent of the cost of attendance.

"TOPS doesn't over the full gambit of a student's educational need," said Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge.

James is a member of a task force of state lawmakers set up to debate the future of the TOPS program. Funding for the scholarship has been in the crosshairs throughout the state's budget crisis. Last year, it was underfunded for the first time ever.

One key question the task force aims to address is whether TOPS is meant to be a merit or needs-based award. Trying to help on the needs-based end, the state gives out so called Go-gr ants to help financially-strapped students. However, data shows that statewide, nearly 30,000 students eligible for some sort of Go-gr ant assistance do not get any because the legislature has not put up enough money.

Last spring during the legislative session, James unsuccessfully attempted to boost Go-gr ant funding. "We can't leave out a large percentage of students because their family can't afford their education," said James, while also noting that TOPS is important.

Meanwhile, another member of the task force, Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, says increasing Go-gr ant funding should not be the top priority. "What we'd like is for our young people to do is do better in school, and therefore hit the merit, which is the TOPS," he said.

The task force will continue to meet over the next few months. Lawmakers have expressed interest in coming up with ideas to make TOPS sustainable. However, with so many mixed opinions on the panel, it's unclear if any sort of consensus will be reached.

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