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Thursday, December 18, 2014
Southwest Louisiana ,
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Changes needed for TOPS program

Last Modified: Monday, March 31, 2014 11:14 AM

The first thrust at bringing some reforms to Louisiana’s college scholarship program met defeat last week, but other legislation appears to be warming up in the bullpen.

Proponents say changes are needed in the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, to rein in costs and to add a degree of difficulty in qualifying for the funding.

House Bill 385, by state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Houma, addressed some of those issues but suffered an 8-4 death in the House Education Committee.

H.B. 1023 by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, is said to have a better chance. He is proposing to raise the minimum standards for a student to qualify for TOPS to a 2.75 grade point average and a score of 22 on the ACT. If approved, those standards would apply in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Beginning in 2021, students would have to earn a 3.0 GPA and a 24 on the ACT.

Currently, the standards are a 2.5 GPA and a minimum score of 20 on the ACT for students to qualify for the lowest level of TOPS.

Kleckley’s bill also calls for freshmen and sophomores to shoulder a larger share of their tuition costs. The tuition of juniors and seniors would be fully funded as they are now.

The speaker’s bill would also dedicate any savings to other scholarship programs for qualifying students.

Kleckley has indicated he will likely amend his bill to better its chances of passage.

More than 47,000 students took advantage of TOPS during the 2012-2013 school year. But some people argue that it is unsustainable, pointing out that costs have risen from $95 million since the program’s inception in the late ’90s to about $220 million for the current year.

“If we don’t do this, there will be no TOPS,” said Harrison.

Some lawmakers are also interested in recouping some of the TOPS payments from students who drop or flunk out of college.

But opponents argue that raising standards, particularly on the ACT where traditionally minority students have scored lower than white students, will eliminate deserving students from the program.

“What are they trying to do? Make it a program for the rich?” said James Caillier, a representative from the Patrick Taylor Foundation, which bears the name of the man who hatched the idea for the program.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has staunchly opposed any changes to TOPS.

This battle will likely be waged in the coming weeks and certainly bears watching for the passion and practicality emanating from both sides.

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