Higher ed official, students, parents react to TOPS bill expected to become law

Top higher ed official, students, parents react to TOPS bill expected to become law

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Louisiana's higher education chief, students and parents react to legislation awaiting the governor's signature that is designed to reduce the future costs of TOPS scholarships at a time when the state is in a dire financial situation.

"I rely on TOPS to like pay for my education because I have low income, so TOPS and my financial aid pay for my education," said University of New Orleans student Victoria Fuentes.

But the number of Louisiana students eligible for the scholarships continues to grow beyond what the state's current bank account can handle. The program costs nearly $300 million, but only $110 million is earmarked for the program given the state's ongoing money crisis.

"So therefore we're at about 40 percent of the amount of money that should go into TOPS to fully fund it," said Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Joseph Rallo.

This week the state Legislature gave final passage to Senate Bill 174 by Sen. Jack Donahue of Mandeville. The measure locks in TOPS at the rate for the incoming fiscal year's tuition level, meaning if tuition goes up beyond that amount students will have to come up with the rest unless the Legislature votes to raise the cap on TOPS payments.

"The floor means it will not go below that amount and it de-couples it from any increase in tuition," Rallo said.

But some students fear any changes to TOPS.

"If that happened, I probably wouldn't go to school here. Tuition is already very high, and we already don't receive enough funds from the state anyway and I pay a lot out of pocket," said UNO student Jaylon Brown.

"It was a measure basically to achieve the sustainability of TOPS, because every time tuition went up, TOPS awards would go up, and therefore that was just an unsustainable outcome," Rallo said.

"Very concerned about TOPS," said Nancy Lococo.

Her son will soon enter his first year of college. All of the talk of altering the TOPS program in other ways has her on edge.

"I'm hoping he received TOPS. He was awarded TOPS before all this legislation changed, and now he may not be," Lococo said.

Here is a snapshot of the number of some of TOPS recipients on some local campuses: UNO said it has about 1,400 students receiving TOPS; Southern University has 29; Delgado Community college has 641 students who are receiving the scholarships.

"Delgado Community College is the most affordable and accessible college or university in greater New Orleans, and we work with all students to secure the financial assistance available to them, through TOPS and other sources, as they progress toward their educational goals. We appreciate the work of our governor and legislators to find long-term solutions to state budget issues, including TOPS funding," said Delgado's Tony Cook, director of Public Relations and Marketing.

Students attending private universities can receive TOPS dollars, as well. Dillard University said it has 139 students with the scholarships. Tulane said its number is 648.

But scaling back TOPS does not get the state's higher education system off the hook for other state budget cuts.

"Right now we're looking at a minimum $46 million reduction next year, as well as the reduction of $180 million in TOPS. It's a significant reduction," said Rallo.

Rallo expects another bill to be approved that would change the allocation process for TOPS, so that all eligible students get some funds.
“It would do a pro rata reduction for everyone, so that students will still get something, whether it’s 40 cents on the dollar, 50 cents on the dollar, but no student would be eliminated,” he said.

Even after some taxes were increased in the recent special legislative session, the state still has a remaining budget shortfall of $600 million.  The governor is expected to call another special session after the regular session ends at the beginning of June.

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