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2018 May 26 - 12:03 am

Lawmakers Refuse Expansion Of La. Free Tuition Program

Ballooning Costs Kill Rewrite of TOPS Scholarship Program

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Efforts to rework Louisiana’s free college tuition program have fizzled in the legislative session.

The House Appropriations Committee rejected two bills to expand the TOPS program, killing the final legislation still pending that would have made eligibility changes to the program.

One measure by Sen. Bodi White, a Baton Rouge area Republican, would have created a new award for TOPS students who attend community college, get an associate degree and enroll in a four-year university. The committee voted 10-9 against the proposal.

The other bill by Sen. Wesley Bishop, a New Orleans Democrat, would have offered TOPS awards to students who weren’t initially eligible when they started a four-year university but meet certain criteria after two years in college. The committee voted 11- 7 against that measure.

A bid to resuscitate the proposals, by tacking them into another bill on the House floor, failed later. Sixty-three lawmakers voted against reviving the measures, while only 28 voted for them.

The proposals would have applied to high school students graduating during or after the 2021-22 school year.

Both bills had Senate backing, but opponents worried about growing costs for a program already nearing a $300 million price tag. They also questioned the wisdom of changing program criteria in a way that critics suggested would lessen standards.

Lawmakers spurned other TOPS redesign bills earlier in the session. They diverge on whether TOPS should reward high-performing or needy students, a disagreement that stymied all efforts to make significant changes to the program.

TOPS, which began covering tuition costs in 1998, covers tuition at a four-year school for any high school graduate who reaches a 2.5 grade-point average and 20 ACT college entrance exam score. Higher-performing students receive additional stipends, while other students get aid to attend community and technical colleges.

Senators rejected a bid to limit the tuition money available to lower-performing TOPS students in the future. The proposal would have capped the amount of tuition covered for students who reach the basic TOPS award for a fouryear college to a flat $4,000 annual payment _ below the $5,600 average yearly tuition rate in Louisiana. Payments would have increased for higher-performing students.

Lawmakers in the House snubbed a separate proposal to toughen eligibility standards for the program.

As the state grapples with a budget gap, TOPS is threatened with cuts in the 2018-19 school year. If they are enacted, every student would share in those cuts equally as lawmakers rejected efforts this session to change how reductions would be divvied up.


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