La. legislator proposes plan reworking TOPS award amounts

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A year after it was underfunded, lawmakers are trying to figure out a way to rework Louisiana's popular TOPS scholarship program.

At the state capitol Thursday, a panel of lawmakers tasked with findings the best way forward pitched familiar overhaul ideas, ones that have failed to gain traction in the past. TOPS is in many ways "untouchable" at the state capitol, making change hard even if lawmakers admit it is needed.

"The current program, which was developed a little over 20 years ago, is an antiquated program," said Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennings.

Morrish, who co-chairs the TOPS task force, pitched a new idea redesigning the TOPS requirements and award amounts. The biggest change deals with the basic TOPS award, called the Opportunity Award. It's for those with a GPA of 2.5 and an ACT score of 20. Unlike before, when that award covered the full cost of tuition, the award would now only be a flat $4,000 for the year. That's short of the average tuition statewide of around $5,600.

"Four thousand dollars won't cover anybody's tuition," said Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, expressing concern about the proposal.

At LSU's main campus, the tuition for this year is about $8,000. At Southern's Baton Rouge campus, tuition is $5,000. Neither of those figures include the various fees or the cost of books.

Under Morrish's plan, students who reached higher benchmarks academically would qualify for more money, including awards covering all of tuition, as well as additional stipends. Under the proposal, the Performance Award would require a GPA of 3.25 (starting with 2021 high school grads) and an ACT score of 23. That award would cover full tuition, but no stipend. The Honors Award would be for those with a GPA of 3.5 (starting with 2021 high school grads) and an ACT score of 27. That award would cover the cost of tuition and include a $1,500 stipend.

The plan would also create a new category called Honors PLUS. That would be for students with a GPA of 4.0 and an ACT score of 30 or higher. That award would cover the full cost of tuition and include a $2,500 stipend.

The plan is already facing push back, with some concerned it will hurt lower income and minority students. "Historically, African Americans struggle with the ACT," said Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans.

Morrish defends his plan, saying it will encourage students to challenge themselves. Plus, he said even $4,000 would be a generous award. "It's still the most lucrative scholarship program in the United States," he said.

RELATED: State panel aimed at finding ways to make TOPS sustainable meets for first time

Morrish says his plan would reduce the overall cost of TOPS by about $20 million annually. Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, suggested any savings the panel finds in TOPS, whether through Morrish's plan or another, should be put toward GO gr ants, which are needs-based awards.

In coming weeks, the task force is supposed to finalize a list of potential ideas to overhaul TOPS, which they will then pass along to the entire legislature for consideration. It remains unclear if any changes will be approved by the legislature this spring.

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