BATON ROUGE — Louisiana lawmakers appear caught in a near-perpetual loop, repeatedly debating how to stabilize the TOPS free college tuition program and continually reaching no agreement on its future.
This latest iteration of the discussion about the popular entitlement program comes with a 10-member study group created by and populated with lawmakers, charged with trying to determine ways to ensure TOPS' "long-term viability."
But while the method for approaching the conversation has changed, the central debate remains the same: Should the nearly 20-year-old program be needs-based or merit-based? Or should lawmakers just acknowledge there's no willingness to heavily rewrite the rules of a program that so many of the state's middle-class families support?
It's unlikely the ideas to emerge will strike new territory. Over the years as the TOPS price tag ballooned, lawmakers have thrown out an array of suggestions to lessen the spending.
Eliminate students in higher-income families? Raise the eligibility standards? Require repayment if a student fails to get a degree? End TOPS awards for students who attend private colleges? Make it a forgivable loan program? Mandate that TOPS students work in Louisiana after college or repay some of the tax dollars spent on their tuition? Change the program into a flat stipend not tied to tuition at all?
All those ideas have been floated — only to go nowhere in the Louisiana Legislature.
TOPS, which began covering tuition costs in 1998, is credited with improving high school performance and college graduation rates in a poor state that has struggled to boost education attainment. But its costs have shot up to an estimated $291 million this year, as more students reached the modest eligibility standards and as colleges boosted tuition rates to compensate for cuts to their state financing.
The program, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is paying tuition for more than 51,000 students this year. Louisiana has spent $2.7 billion on the program since it began, the task force was told.
Of more than 350 pieces of legislation introduced to tweak TOPS since its creation, 75 have been enacted into law, according to data presented to the study group. Those provisions largely have expanded the program, sweeping in more students.
Examples include making it easier for homeschool students to qualify for the aid, allowing the awards to be used in cosmetology school and reducing the eligibility level for certain awards.
"Historically, there have not been a lot of changes to restrict or limit the program," said Sujuan Boutte, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.
The only significant cost containment effort from lawmakers passed last year, when they locked in the tuition payment rate at the current level. If tuition goes up, a TOPS award won't automatically grow to cover it.
Lawmakers appear to disagree on what they believe TOPS should be.
Should it be a reward for higher-performing students? A method to boost high school achievement by steering students to courses they otherwise might not take? A program to help students who can't afford college? A way to keep the brightest students in Louisiana?
Some lawmakers think TOPS should be all those things. Others say that's a nice idea, but Louisiana can't afford it.
Rather than prioritize students in the program, lawmakers so far decided any reductions to TOPS should be divvied up pro rata, rather than factoring in a family's wealth or a student's performance. The only time the Legislature hasn't fully funded TOPS, during the last school year, the cut was evenly applied so each student had 70 percent of tuition costs covered.
Providing historical perspective to the task force was James Caillier, executive director of a foundation created by Pat Taylor, the philanthropist who designed a scholarship program that was the precursor to TOPS and for whom TOPS is named.
"TOPS was never intended for the best and brightest. TOPS was intended to better prepare students for success in college," he said.
Caillier also reminded lawmakers the tuition assistance program started by Taylor had an income cap and primarily focused on low- and moderate-income students.
Recommendations from the legislative task force are due Feb. 15. But whether lawmakers have the political will or interest to tweak TOPS, no matter the recommendations, remains a question mark.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at twitter.com/melindadeslatte.