TOPS payments suspended; Lawmaker says students won't be hurt

TOPS suspended as budget cuts loom in Louisiana

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - As night fell over the University of New Orleans campus, word had already spread about the state suspending payments to higher education institutions for Taylor Opportunity Program for Students Scholarships, commonly called TOPS.

"It's really appalling," said John Mason, a UNO Sophomore and TOPS recipient.

"Flabbergasted," said Freshman Jennifer Dickerson, who also receives TOPS money for her education.

Because of the state's growing budget crisis and uncertainty over whether the state legislature will approve tax increases, the Office of Student Financial Assistance immediately halted TOPS payments to state colleges and universities on Feb. 11.

"It's kind of what I rely on for my free tuition for college and what I've been relying on for basically two years," Mason said. "I worked hard in high school to make sure that I got a 20 on my ACT for TOPS specifically."

"I work, but it's not nearly enough to cover a semester's tuition along with other expenses," said Ruben Castillo, a senior at UNO.

Higher Education officials are stunned.

"If the legislature does nothing we will close doors before the end of the semester," said a member of the State Board of Regents.

"Obviously, shocking a program that's widely popular among people of all parties," said House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, a democrat from New Orleans.

According the legislative office, for  fiscal year 2016, the State Office of Student Financial Assistance estimates the number of TOPS awards will be 49,776 with an average award amount of $5,699.  The total cost of the program is put at $285 million. Some republicans averse to tax hikes feel higher education may be able to streamline even more.

Republican State Rep. Julie Stokes of Kenner believes the state funded university system has suffered major cuts in recent years and deserves a break.

"Our Higher Ed system has been cut more than any other Higher Ed system in the United States," Stokes said. "I don't think there's a whole lot of room left there to cut without a substantial overhaul and the deeper you get into it the more and more difficult you can see that that overhaul would be."

Governor John Bel Edwards used a part of his statewide televised speech to talk about the additional dire consequences higher education would suffer if lawmakers do not embrace serious budget solutions. He has proposed raising the state sales tax, and trimming some discretionary dedicated funds.

"The LA tops scholarship fund is now so depleted that if the legislature does not raise additional revenue fewer high school students will receive awards and current  recipients are in jeopardy of losing their existing scholarships for next year," the governor said.

Rep. Leger said the suspension of TOPS payments, though unfortunate, will not cause students to come up with the money the scholarships cover.

"Over the years, TOPS has been a priority, but what is happening today is that the universities will not be receiving TOPS payments and the universities are going to be asked to absorb those cuts," Leger said. "It's not going to be on the backs of students, or families but universities."

But if universities have less money to go around, other facets of education will be short-changed.

"The kids will go, they just may not finish the semester as the governor referenced, because of the cuts that may potentially shut some of these schools down," Leger said.

"I think a little bit of taxes here and there... It's worth it in the long run to support education," said student Jennifer Dickerson. "I mean what else is there."

According to the legislative fiscal office $65 million dollars in the TOPS fund is protected by the state constitution.  More than $200 million comes from the state general fund which is susceptible to cuts.

The special legislative session called by the governor begins on Sunday.

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