La. House committee advances bill forcing students to repay their TOPS award if they drop out

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A panel of Louisiana House lawmakers advanced three bills Thursday overhauling the TOPS program, including one forcing students to repay the award if they drop out.

Sponsored by Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, the TOPS payback legislation would essentially turn the scholarship into a loan. If a student fails to meet TOPS standards or d rops out of college, they would have to pay the money back. Garofalo says it's all about accountability. "A lot of these kids are out at night and they wind up d ropping out of school, with no recourse from the state, with this taxpayer money that we work really hard to maintain for them," he told lawmakers.

The change could also save the state some money. The legislative fiscal office estimates about $7.7 million could be owed back to the state by 2020. Enforcing the rule change, however, could cost taxpayers about $650,000 per year, according to Garofalo.

Some argued the award already comes with a built-in punishment: it can be taken away if students fail to meet the required benchmarks. They feared the bill would only further add to student debt and could prompt students to look elsewhere, including out of state, for steadier ground. "Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas would love this program. They would recruit from Louisiana. 'Come to Alabama, we'll give you a full ride,'" argued James Caillier, with the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation.

The House Education committee approved the bill with an 8 to 5 vote. The same panel also approved a bill adding a new TOPS award, called TOPS Transfer. Crafted by Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, the change would re-route certain students to two-year technical schools. If they do well there, they can then transfer to a four-year institution.

Ivey said his aim is to allow lower-achieving students to gain their footing at a potentially lower cost to the state. "It doesn't prevent anyone from getting that four-year degree, it simply requires they start at the technical community college level first," Ivey told legislators.

Currently, students who score a 20 on their ACT and have a GPA of 2.5 qualify for a TOPS Opportunity award. That allows them to attend a four-year school. Ivey's bill would boost the Opportunity requirements to 21 and 2.75, respectively. The potentially hundreds of students impacted by the change would be put in the Transfer Award program.

The bill faced push back from some lawmakers, who questioned whether the bill would force students down a path they did not want to take. "What you are doing are preventing a student from choosing whether they want four-year, two-year education as well as having the opportunity to matriculate to one of our public educational institutions," said Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans.

That bill advanced with a 7 to 6 vote.

Ivey's other bill, also approved by committee, would boost requirements for TOPS students while they are in college. Currently, they must maintain a GPA of 2.3 for the first 24 credit hours. That would increase to 2.5. Students also currently need to have an overall GPA of 2.5 upon reaching 48 credit hours. His bill would increase that to 2.75. That bill also got through committee, with an 8 to 5 vote.

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