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College bind: after TOPS cuts, how Louisiana students pay for college 

As TOPS grants decrease, higher education students must find new ways to pay tuition

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Seventeen years ago, Patrick F. Taylor convinced the Louisiana Legislature to pass a law ensuring young people had an opportunity to pursue higher education, regardless of family income.

  Signed into law in 1989 by Gov. Buddy Roemer, Act 789 created a new program dubbed the Louisiana College Tuition Plan, and it was the first state-funded, merit-based college tuition program in the country.

  Now called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, it has served as a model nationwide. By 2004, more than 20 states had adopted their own versions of TOPS to help students pay tuition at public colleges.

  But this school year may mark the beginning of a different kind of TOPS program: It's the first time since its inception that the scholarship won't cover full tuition costs for eligible students attending public colleges and universities in the state.

  As the legislature was preparing to adjourn in late June, it made a last-minute cut to the budget, resulting in only a 70 percent funding of the TOPS program, which as of the 2016-17 school year had reached almost $300 million.

  That means about 51,000 students receiving TOPS scholarships this year may be on the hook for up to 30 percent of their tuition, on top of housing costs, books, supplies and other school fees that aren't included in the cost of tuition.

  TOPS was one of many programs to be slashed amid a state budget fiasco that left a $600 million shortfall by midsummer, prompting legislators to look into previously untapped money-saving sources.

  Several Republicans in the state House of Representatives have said the cuts won't be as dire as education officials fear, thanks to a highly unusual budget plan that front-loads TOPS, leaving the majority of the decrease in funding for later.

  As passed, the law funds TOPS scholarships at 93 percent in the fall and 47.6 percent next spring.

  Deferring the major decrease means legislators have more time to find additional funding for TOPS before the majority of cuts impact students. Newly passed taxes, for instance, could bring in higher revenue than estimated, and that funding could be used to make up cuts for the spring semester.

  Gov. John Bel Edwards, however, has called the tactic "disingenuous," and said students should "be prepared" for cuts to the TOPS awards.

  Other lawmakers, including several Democrats, slammed the budgeting move, with state Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, calling it "smoke and mirrors."

 "This isn't budgeting on what we have," Luneau said. "This is budgeting on what we dream we have."

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State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that even if TOPS doesn't get more funding by spring, the front-loading also gives students time to get the money together before their next tuition bill is due.

  But James Caillier, executive director of the Taylor Foundation, said the financing schedule creates problems for people looking for additional funding for the spring because student financial assistance generally is available in the fall.

  Moreover, he said, there's not a wide range of other school tuition subsidy options in the Pelican State. Therefore, it's likely that in just a matter of months, more than half the cost attending college will fall on students and their families. He warns that the situation could get more serious in future years because the Legislature not only voted to not fully fund TOPS this year but also opted to separate the TOPS awards amounts from the cost of tuition at public universities and colleges.

  With an average 10 percent increase in fees across the board in Louisiana-based colleges and universities, Caillier said these changes in TOPS funding could have a negative impact on enrollment for years to come.

  Because of the rising costs of higher education, TOPS over time has risen from a $25,000-per-year program to one set to cost $297 million for the 2016-17 school year. Previously, TOPS awards rose with tuition; now the amount of the award is locked in for the 2016-17 school year.

  House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, said the new law actually would stabilize the cost of TOPS.

  The Legislature can increase the TOPS award in any given year, every year, if funding is available, Landry said during the legislative session.

  But Caillier said it's more likely students and families will have to absorb the cost of tuition increases in the future.

  "Institutions are either holding down the costs of tuition in other states or looking at ways to decrease the cost to make education more affordable," Callier said. "But in Louisiana, we are going in the opposite direction. We are making education less affordable."

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  That, in turn, will result in fewer high-performing students graduating from Louisiana universities and colleges, which likely will mean a decrease in the number of highly talented individuals entering the state's workforce, since many people tend to start working in the state in which they graduate, Caillier said.

  "It's a double-whammy," Caillier said. "All indications are that enrollment will be down. One of the factors that will cause it is a reduced amount of TOPS. Students are concerned about if they will have enough money to go to school."

  The amount students will have to pay will vary by school. At LSU, a full-time student relying on TOPS will owe about $2,100 in tuition, according to recent rates released for the 2016-17 school year.

  The cost is a little lower in New Orleans, but not much: University of New Orleans TOPS students will have to pay $1,830 out of pocket.

In New Orleans, some universities and colleges already have started preparing students for TOPS changes and are helping them find other financial aid or scholarships.

  Adam Norris, chief communications officer for the University of New Orleans, said the school "took great pains" to tell students about how they might avail themselves of additional aid to help fill the gap created by TOPS changes.

   According to Norris, the most important instruction was to tell students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to find out all the aid they'd be eligible for.

  Through FAFSA, students can learn whether they qualify for a Federal Pell Grant, which can provide up to $5,500 per year, or a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), which can offer up to $4,000 per year.

  At the state level, certain low- to moderate-income students might also be eligible for a Louisiana Go Grant, which can provide up to $3,000 per academic year.

  "We wanted to make sure that students were not leaving money on the table," Norris said.

  UNO also set aside money in private scholarships specifically to help TOPS students and is rolling out a scholarship for the spring 2017 semester. They'll be announced in November, when officials will know the full TOPS amount for the spring.

  Mike Goodman, associate vice president of financial aid for Tulane, said the private school he works for also offers "a very robust level" of financial assistance.

  The school helps students navigate federal need-based scholarships that can supplement possible merit scholarships, he said. The financial aid office also helps students with federal student loans and work-based study programs.

  Tulane wouldn't be increasing scholarships just because TOPS funding has decreased, he said

  "We don't come up with our own institutional money when we know an outside entity is going to come up short," Goodman said.

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