Opinion: Looking to stem TOPS escalating costs

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This is a year to pay close attention to the Louisiana Legislature as its members attempt to resolve a $1.6 billion budget hole.  And there are a myriad of budget areas that should be of concern to Louisiana citizens including the future of the state’s college and university system, as well as its health care system.

But a big worry for many Louisiana families is the future of the TOPS program that so many state students look to for funding their higher education costs – and TOPS funding is a matter of legislative interest the session that begins this week.

A visit with state Senator and gubernatorial candidate John Bel Edwards last fall put the TOPS funding problems in perspective when looking at how to resolve current and future state budget shortfalls.

“… We pay for TOPS out of the state general fund budget.  And so TOPS is a program that has grown exponentially, as you know.  It started off at about a $50 million per year program.  It’s $250 million now and within two or three years, it’s going to be $390 million.  And that’s a function of these tuition increases, because if you raise tuition, then the cost of TOPS also goes up.”

Edwards explained that one way to reduce the escalating cost of TOPS is to “start increasing the state fund revenue for higher education so that your university boards don’t have to keep raising tuition.”

Edwards had a good bit more to say about the value of Louisiana’s higher education systems and absolute need for the state to return to more robust funding of these systems.

In a more recent visit, Edwards noted that a bill filed by state Senators Jack Donahue and Conrad Appel to better control the cost of TOPS is a favorable possibility for maintaining this critical funding for state students into the future.

The bill would set a tuition payment rate locked in at the 2015-16 level.  Then, instead of the payment increasing automatically as tuition costs are increased, state lawmakers would have to approve any increases.  This year’s TOPS costs will increase $34 million over the 2014-15 year.

The passage of this bill means it’s possible that students and their families may have to pay some out of pocket costs of instances where the legislature doesn’t approve TOPS increases in concert with college/university increases.  On the other hand, the prospect of protecting and maintaining the integrity of TOPS over many years should be a strong consideration in favor of the bill.

This bill is reported to be gaining support both among legislators and state higher education officials.  And once it’s understood that the bill calls for no reduction in payments, but simply better cost control, Louisiana citizens likely will also see the benefit the bill’s protection and maintenance of TOPS.

In the long run, this is a bill that needs to pass – and a call in support of it to your state representative would be helpful in making that passage a reality.

Marty Carlson is a columnist for the BPT. She may be reached at martycarlson1218@gmail.com