NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - State lawmakers have begun discussing proposed changes to reduce costs associated with Louisiana's popular TOPS Scholarship Program as state government continues to wrestle with money problems.
On college campuses around the state, tens of thousands of students have their tuition paid entirely or partially through TOPS scholarships. It's the growing number of students who qualify for TOPS and the state's shortage of funds that is a serious problem.
"I definitely think that there is an issue with TOPS," said Jeneal Bank, a student at the University of New Orleans.
A slew of TOPS-related bills were filed for the current regular legislative session ranging from increasing the ACT score needed to quality for TOPS to forcing some students repay TOPS funds. On Wednesday the House Education Committee took up some of the bills. One would require freshmen to get 80 percent of their scholarship amount; sophomores would get 90 percent.
The bill's author said tinkering with TOPS is not what anyone wants to do, but the money shortage cannot be ignored.
"I am extremely frustrated by this because for years we have been trying to address this and get it under control in an effort to save the program we all love," said Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond.
There is also a proposal to raise the ACT score needed to qualify for TOPS.
"I'm already a recipient, so I do think that maybe raising GPA requirements will work," said Banks.
There is also a bill to cut TOPS scholarship amounts across the board.
Additionally, a bill by Rep. Julie Stokes was discussed by the house committee. It calls for TOPS recipients to repay money they received if they fail to maintain the requirements of the scholarship or drop out of school. Under her proposal, freshmen would repay 100 percent; sophomores 75 percent; juniors 50 percent and seniors 25 percent.
"It would at least help them realize the opportunity that they're given, so that they could take it seriously," Stokes said.
But there is a lot of pushback.
"It's going to be much more difficult to collect than what the statistics presented here today, and you'd have to set up a new bureaucracy to deal with this," said Dr. James Callier of the TOPS Foundation.
Back on UNO's campus, there were mixed opinions on a payback of scholarship money.
"I feel like that would make sense, but it seems a little harsh to me. That's about as far as I've thought about it," said UNO electrical engineering student David Licciardi.
And some critics say the idea that students may have to pay money back to the state could discourage some young people from entering college altogether.
Meanwhile current scholarship recipients ponder the impact on the rest of their time in college.
"I'm very concerned about it. Like, I still have two more years' worth of it. TOPS is supposed to be paying two more years of my school degree," said UNO student Donald Gilardoni.
"Something definitely needs to happen because a lot of people rely on it, me being one of them," Banks stated.
After a verbal vote with more nays than yeas, Broadwater "involuntarily deferred" his bill. Stokes deferred a vote on her legislation after sensing that there was not enough support.