The 2014 session of the Louisiana Legislature convened Monday, and during this year's non-fiscal session, proposed bills weigh in heavily on statewide concerns about higher education funding.

How are lawmakers proposing to cover the more than $700 million cut from higher education budgets since 2008? Changes to the TOPS program appear to be low-hanging fruit for higher education funding reform.

At least 15 bills proposed by the Louisiana House and Senate address the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which ballooned into a $235 million program after starting out at around $40 million in the late 1990s.

Is capping TOPS a good idea?

Lawmakers are attempting to place caps on the program and figure out new ways to distribute the funds.

Louisiana Budget Project
  • Senate Bill 190, by Dan Morrish, R-Jennings, would cap the TOPS award at its 2013-2014 rate plus 10 percent, with future increases to awards to be determined according to the consumer price index starting with the 2015-2016 academic year.
  • Senate Bill 340, by Mandeveille Republican Sen. Jack Donahue, would cap TOPS in almost the same way, but a year later and without the additional 10 percent inclusion. The 2014-2015 rates would determine the cap, with room for adjustments based on the CPI starting with the 2016-2017 school year. The bill also provides that the law would only be implemented if higher education boards are given authority to determine tuition fees without legislative approval; that could be good news for universities that are struggling to increase revenues.
  • House Bill 385, by Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Gray, would increase TOPS requirements and cap the program at $1,600 a semester, while also requiring students who fail to meet TOPS requirements while under the scholarship to repay the state in tuition costs.
  • Republican Rep. Hunter Greene's House Bill 1009 would award TOPS on a graduated scale, with the program covering 25, 50 or 100 percent of tuition costs based on the level of the award. Under the Baton Rouge lawmaker's proposed bill, the student (or parent who paid tuition) would later receive a refund for the costs incurred, but only if the student earned his/her degree.

Could increasing eligibility requirements save the program?

Students who demonstrate financial need can receive federal PELL grants to cover tuition costs, and state lawmakers are quick to remember that. Some approaches to rethinking TOPS would make the program a more selective scholarship awarded to high-performing students.
  • House Bill 510, also by Greene, would hike the required GPA from 2.5 to 2.75 and the needed ACT score from 20 to 21 for the basic-level TOPS Opportunity Award.
  • A more drastic measure, however, from Republican Speaker Chuck Kleckley's House Bill 1023. It raises TOPS requirements from a 20 ACT score to a 22 for students graduating 2017-2020 and a 24 for students graduating thereafter. It increases the required GPA from 2.5 to 2.75 for the first batch of students to see changes and to a 3.0 from students graduating in 2020 and beyond.
  • Monroe Democrat Katrina Jackson's House Bill 977 would increase the required GPA to 3.0, but the ACT score would depend upon the average annual score for students where the applicant is enrolled. Jackson's bill would also keep the varying award levels that dole out extra cash based on GPA scores, but the ACT scores would also be determined as per the average score at the applicant's school.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers want to expand the program further

Louisiana's workforce is also a major agenda item during this year's session, and several TOPS bills would increase the scholarship's availability to those seeking tech training — in some instances by lowering eligibility requirements or reconsidering how those requirements are determined.

Never's Senate Bill 98, for example, would make qualifying for TOPS easier for honors students by making advanced placement, gifted and dual enrollment courses valued on a five-point scale when determining GPA (five points for an A; four, B; three, C; two, D; zero, F) for TOPS applicants starting with the 2017-2018 school year.

Technical training scholarships
  • Senate Bill 126, by Bogalusa Democrat Ben Nevers, would expand the use of the TOPS Tech Early Start Award toward any course leading to an industry certification or certificate of applied or technical sciences. The proposed law would eliminate the need for the credentials to be approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Supervisors of Community and Technical Colleges, as is currently required. It would also eliminate a requirement that applicants score minimum passing grades on the English and math portions of the graduation exit exam.
  • House Bill 260, by Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, would lower TOPS eligibility for those seeking technical training by reducing the required ACT score from 17 to 16. Democratic Carencro Rep. Stephen Ortego's House Bill 760 would also lower the required ACT from 17 to 16. It would also change the name of the award from "TOPS Tech Award" to "TOPS College Award."
TOPS for those beyond high school
  • Republican Sen. A.G. Crowe's SB 367 creates the TOPS Tech Plus Award, which would allow students with some college under their belt to earn the scholarship. Up to 100 applicants who have an associate's degree with a minimum GPA of 2.5 could receive the proposed TOPS Tech scholarship that would pay out an equivalent of the TOPS Opportunity award.
  • Another bill by Hunter Greene, 710 — just like House Bill 997 by Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe — would make TOPS available to postgraduate students who earned an undergraduate degree out of state and would have qualified for TOPS upon graduating high school. The funds would only be available up to seven years after high school graduation and for no more than three academic years.
  • And another bill by Donahue, Senate Bill 520 would expand the LA GO Grant — a state program benefitting low- to moderant-income students — starting in the 2018-2019 school year.