Should award amounts for the TOPS scholarship program be capped?
As has any other state-funded program this legislative session, the popular Louisiana college scholarship program known as TOPS has become a target for lawmakers to rein in costs that have fueled a $1.6 billion budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students’ expenses have ballooned to an expected $284 million this upcoming fiscal year. Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, has filed a bill this session that would end automatic increases for TOPS when tuition rates rise, which some public officials have decried as an effective cap on the program. The Senate passed the bill 27-9 on April 29, amid passionate testimony from senators. At press time, it was up for consideration in the House. Below are comments from the Senate floor from two senators on different sides of the issue—Sen. JP Morrell in support of Donahue’s bill, and Sen. Dan Claitor in opposition of it. —Robert Stewart
“The argument that TOPS makes higher ed whole is a complete fallacy. For every dollar we’ve given higher ed in TOPS through tuition, we have taken it out their back door. I’ve offered a constitutional amendment to [remove constitutional protections on certain funds] because siloing money does not work. We make an argument constantly to the public that our hands are tied at what we can do at budgeting. TOPS is another way we tie our hands.”
“The TOPS program on the current track is unsustainable. If we let TOPS in its silo continue to exist, it is a certainty that my kids won’t have TOPS. Heck, kids 10 years from now won’t have TOPS. When you look at the fact that on the one hand, we have the people who are in opposition to this bill who believe that TOPS should be left the way it is are the very same people who think and propose budgets [in which] we should cut higher education by 80%.”
“I think it is a grave disservice to misrepresent to people that if they stick their heads in the sand like an ostrich and willy-wish that TOPS is going to continue to exist, that somehow higher education will be made whole. You know it’s bad when higher education is saying, ‘Please stop sending us this free money, it’s killing us.'”
“When I survey [whether] higher ed insulated and siloed like the other things in state government, I don’t see that silo or that insulated place for higher ed other than in TOPS. … I understand what Sen. Donahue is thinking. He’s saying, ‘I’m trying to save the program, I’m trying to put predictability in it.’ But to me, when I speak to those that ask me about higher ed, I’m able to point to one program that I’m aware of that insulates and silos money for higher education.”
“I tried to do some math on the amount of money that TOPS brings in to higher ed, particularly to LSU. When you put pencil to paper, it’s about the same as a $2 billion endowment. LSU doesn’t have a big endowment, but that’s what it amounts to. … I assume that [other legislators] have been contacted by the students, the voters and the people in [their] neighborhood that say they believe TOPS is valuable and that they don’t want to see a cap on it.”
“I would like to be able to predict that we would make the commitment to higher ed that at least I’ve been elected to do. Though I appreciate very much Sen. Donahue’s aspiration, and I certainly take him at his word that he wants to save TOPS, I want to save higher ed, I want to insulate it, I want to silo it, just like we do nursing homes, businesses, solar, film. Let’s give higher ed its own silo.”