Louisiana’s resumption of TOPS funding culminates 24-hour roller coaster surrounding higher ed

The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance announced today it could continue TOPS funding on Thursday, Feb. 18.

The announcement comes one day after the agency suspended TOPS payments because of the state’s murky budget situation. A  shortfall of approximately $900 million is projected for this fiscal year and a $2 billion shortfall is expected next fiscal year, much more than previously thought.

Today’s announcement also comes one day after Gov. John Bel Edwards, in his statewide televised address, told residents universities will have to absorb any TOPS shortfall this year.

LOSFA will only be able to pay about 80% of TOPS awards, meaning the state’s universities will have to cover the remaining 20%—about $28 million.

TOPS is not out of the woods yet, though, because the program is only 25% funded for the 2016-17 fiscal year. In a statement today, Edwards says this means fewer scholarships will be awarded next year and blamed the situation on former Gov. Bobby Jindal without identifying his predecessor by name.

“The impact to TOPS funding for the 2016-2017 academic school year will be determined by the outcome of the upcoming legislative sessions,” LOSFA says in a statement.

Marty Chabert, former state senator and current member of the state Board of Regents, says it’s a scary time to be a friend of higher education given the latest financial shortfalls revealed and because of already proposed drastic funding cuts.

“It’s never good seeing any cuts to higher education,” Chabert says. “In my opinion, that’s the place that needs to be fully funded.”

Chabert says he knew higher education and the state as a whole were in trouble, but he did not realize the extent until hearing Edwards’ address Thursday night. As far as how the board will handle the cuts, Chabert says he has to see what solutions lawmakers will develop.

“Until we can see the whole picture, it’s hard to decide what we’re going to do, in my opinion,” Chabert says.

He and other Board of Regents members plan to be present during the special three-week legislative session on the budget, he adds. The session begins Sunday.

Attempts to reach Board President Richard Lipsey, who Chabert deferred some questions to, and state Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo today were unsuccessful.

Louisiana Federation of College Republicans State Chair Sarah Bryson slammed Edwards, saying in a statement his administration has put the future of the state’s higher ed students in jeopardy and is strong-arming legislators into supporting his plan to raise taxes.

“Our college students should not be forced to suffer due to the refusal of this administration and some legislators to make real spending cuts and budgetary reforms, like ridding our state Constitution of its ‘sacred cow’ dedications,” Bryson says. “This plan is short-sighted and Louisiana will not win in the end.”

In his address, Edwards said without any new revenue created this special session, some colleges and universities will be forced to declare bankruptcy, which will include canceling classes for the semester and leaving student-athletes academically ineligible to compete.

This move would kill the ultimate sacred cow in Louisiana—LSU football.

Also in a statement, University of Louisiana at Lafayette President Joseph Savoie says the school will honor the state’s commitment to students this academic year and is working to mitigate the impact of TOPS funding for students.

“We are working with our state legislators to come up with short- and long-term solutions for TOPS stability. We are hopeful that the upcoming legislative sessions will yield outcomes that support students and this important program,” Savoie says.

—Ryan Broussard

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