Changes to TOPS on the horizon?

Advocate file photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- LSU's Memorial Tower
Advocate file photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- LSU's Memorial Tower

One by one Wednesday, three Louisiana high school students gave a group of academics and policy wonks their thoughts on how to reform TOPS, the state’s merit-based college scholarship as the program’s cost becomes more and more expensive to the state.

Much of the money for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students comes from the state general fund. The cost to the state has risen from $41 million in 1999 to $166 million last year.

Kalin Larousse, a Thibodaux High School senior, said Louisiana lawmakers ought to raise the standards for TOPS. The program requires a 2.5 high school GPA and a score of 20 out of a possible 36 on the ACT standardized test.

His argument was the low bar required to get a TOPS scholarship keeps expectations low.

“The state average ACT score is 19.6, so people are aiming for 20,” Larousse said. “If they were aiming for 23, the state average will go up to 21 or 22.”

Larousse’s suggestion was one of several made during Wednesday’s meeting of the Tuition Task Force, the brainchild of state Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro. The group is made up of high school and college students and academic leaders from around the state.

The group will submit a report to the Legislature on Jan. 9.

Ortego said he wants the task force to address “the outrageous tuition increases” colleges and universities have put in place in the past several years as they try to make up for five straight years of state budget cuts.

Many of the ideas presented during Wednesday’s meeting, rehash the recommendations the so-called Tucker Commission came up with four years ago and the suggestions made by the 18-member Governance Commission two years ago.

Like the Tuition Task Force, both of those groups were created by the Legislature.

The problem is the majority of the recommendations that came out of those groups died swiftly and with little debate among lawmakers.

Other suggestions to come out of Wednesday’s meeting was an idea presented by Mandeville High School student Patrick Flanigan, who suggested any specifics related to the raising of TOPS standards be left to the Legislature so as not to back them into a corner.

With more than 40 percent of TOPS recipients losing their award at some point due to poor academic performance, Flanigan said there has to be some balance between making it achievable for students and keeping it from becoming “a worthless investment” by the state when students lose their awards.

Shelby Paine, a senior at Captain Shreve High School in Shreveport, presented ideas from her task force sub-group, which recommended making mandatory that students take 15 credit hours per semester in order to receive a TOPS award.

Paine’s group also suggested TOPS pay for only the first 12 credit hours to keep costs down.

Other suggestions included creating a sliding scale for TOPS where the monetary awards increase progressively as students move from their freshman year to their senior year, giving students more of an incentive to say in school.

Some of the main themes discussed by all three groups include doing something about the ever-increasing cost of TOPS and giving colleges and universities more authority to set their own tuition.

The 2010 LA GRAD Act allows schools to raise tuition 10 percent each year provided they meet certain performance requirements including increased graduation and retention rates.

Any other tuition increase requires two-third vote from the Legislature, which is the toughest threshold in the country to overcome.

On Wednesday, state Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said he was pleased by a recent opinion article House Speaker Chuck Kleckley wrote for LaPolitics.com, in which the Lake Charles Republican said he’s willing to consider giving schools the authority to set their own tuition in exchange for improved academic performance.

It’s a familiar position for Kleckley.

In August, he described the financial struggles of Louisiana’s higher education institutions as personal for him. He told the Press Club of Baton Rouge that his youngest daughter was navigating a six-year course to college graduation because state budget cutbacks are preventing McNeese State University from offering the classes she needs.

Support from Kleckley doesn’t necessarily mean higher education leaders will get what they want when legislators return to the state Capitol in March. Before the start of last year’s legislative session, Kleckley said he supported making changes to TOPS.

“We’re going to have to find a way to realistically find a way, to put a cap on TOPS,” Kleckley said during an April 3 news conference. Eight days later when Gov. Bobby Jindal said he wouldn’t sign any bill that limited TOPS awards, Kleckley changed his tune.

“I don’t think we should cap it,” he said. “I think cap is probably too strong a word. But I think we can find a better way to manage TOPS.”