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2011 December 26 - 12:00 am

NEWS ANALYSIS: Student Borrowing Surge Creates ‘Bubble’ Concerns

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s lawmakers have repeatedly refused proposals to change the state’s free college tuition program called TOPS. In recent years, they’ve rejected caps on funding, repayment by students who lose the awards because of poor grades and bids to tie the money to students’ financial need.

In case they haven’t had enough or the new lawmakers want to get in on the discussion, legislators will get a chance to wade through the politically thorny issue again.

The latest study panel looking at the management and funding of Louisiana’s public colleges is yet again suggesting a revamp of TOPS, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.

Will a new term or new lawmakers change feelings toward TOPS or attempts to rein in its cost? That’s unlikely, considering how popular the program is with parents around the state.

The political reality hasn’t stopped the Governance Commission, which is studying Louisiana higher education issues, from suggesting a significant revamp of TOPS.

TOPS provides scholarships to Louisiana high school students who meet certain grade point average and college entrance test score requirements. The basic TOPS award covers tuition at any state public college. It does not factor in a family’s income or the student’s ability to pay. Higher achieving students can earn extra awards under the program.

Even as budget troubles have slashed state funding to higher education, the TOPS program has been shielded from any cuts.

The program costs the state about $150 million a year and rising. Because it’s tied to tuition rates, any time colleges ask lawmakers to raise tuition for students, the debate often hinges on the impact on the state budget since an increase in tuition forces up the price of TOPS.

Among the 21 recommendations backed by the Governance Commission was a proposal to give all students a flat grant amount from TOPS, capped at the same level for everyone, rather than tied to the cost of tuition at an individual school.

Under the idea, lawmakers could set awards at two levels, for example, one at community colleges and another for four-year schools, with additional stipends continuing for those higher performing students.

Panel members said that “decoupling” would give the state more ability to control the costs of TOPS, and could give some students money to cover costs beyond tuition, like books and student fees. The commission said TOPS awards could be adjusted annually by the Consumer Price Index or some other inflationary measure.

“I think the decoupling recommendation is a very powerful one,” said Sean Reilly, a business leader and member of the 18-member Governance Commission.

Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell also supported the recommendation, calling it ``a good concept.’’

But it’s a longshot with lawmakers.

Proposals to tweak or entirely overhaul TOPS have been introduced annually for several years in the Legislature, but they repeatedly fail to advance out of committee. Often, they don’t even get much discussion before they’re shelved.

Supporters of the current structure argue students have earned the free tuition and the state shouldn’t take away what students have been promised. They say the program encourages people to go to college in a poor state with fewer college graduates than the national average and shouldn’t be restricted.

Also, the program is extremely popular with Louisiana families, making it one of the most protected of state government’s sacred cows. Any suggestions of change meet resistance from lawmakers leery of angering constituents.

Reilly acknowledged the controversy that any discussion of changing TOPS generates, saying, “I would hope that we keep an open mind on it.”

Members of the Governance Commission, which will submit the final version of its recommendation to lawmakers in January, tried to frame its TOPS suggestion as a way to continue rewarding students — and even raising the college aid — while giving the Legislature more flexibility in its funding decisions.

They’ll have a tough job pitching that idea at the Louisiana Capitol.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.

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