With budget shortfalls still looming, higher education leaders are looking at more potential changes to the TOPS scholarship program.

Higher Ed Commissioner Joe Rallo says one option being discussed is raising the hourly requirement for the scholarship from 24 credits per year to 30. He says the idea is to encourage students to graduate more quickly, as TOPS only covers eight semesters.

“If they take 12 credits, they are not going to graduate in four years, and they’re going to take a fifth year that they have to pay for themselves. So we think by looking at this, it gets the students through more quickly, and they have less debt because they don’t have to pay for that extra year,” Rallo said.

Rallo says this would mean students would have to take either 15 credits per semester or 6 additional hours during the summer. He says up until about 20 years ago, it was normal for students to take 15 hours a semester, until the feds lowered the requirements to be considered a fulltime student.

“We are really trying to go back to what used to be for a merit based program, which is what TOPS is, to say we want you to graduate in four years, and we’re going to cover you for four years,” Rallo said.

Rallo says this is just one of several changes they’re considering to stabilize the program. Lawmakers are hopeful they can find the necessary $89 million to fully fund the program next year, but Rallo says changes will likely come to TOPS whether or not it’s fully funded.

“Our responsibility is to make sure students get a quality education, they graduate on time, and they move out, and if the legislature fully funds it, that’s great, but we can’t wait on them,” Rallo said.

Opponents of the change say it would add to students’ workload, especially for those who take time-consuming labs or play sports.