Louisiana struggles to shoulder costs of free tuition program

The State of Louisiana is struggling to afford the ballooning costs of a program that provides free college tuition for state residents, which are now approaching $300 million per year.

According to a report by the Associated Press, state lawmakers have created a 10-member legislative study group to reevaluate the “TOPS” program and find possible solutions to either financing or eliminating the expensive government benefit.

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TOPS has expanded substantially since its inception in 1998, when the original Taylor Opportunity Program for Students only covered 23,600 students. Over the years, however, TOPS has more than doubled its coverage to approximately 51,000 students.

According to FOX 44, TOPS currently eats up 2.7 percent of the state’s general fund and is projected to cost Luisiana $291 million this year—10 times more than its initial cost in 1988.

In order to qualify for a basic TOPS award, which covers tuition for eight semesters at a four-year institution, students need to earn a minimum score of 20 on the ACT exam, attain a 2.5 GPA on the TOPS Core Curriculum in high school, and complete an application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Republican State Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, a member of the task force and the chair of the Senate Education Committee, told FOX 44 that the review panel will be aided by the fact that the legislature is currently not in session.

"When there are lots of other bills on the agenda, during a session when there are budgetary issues, we're wanting to focus just on TOPS, to figure out where the program goes from here," Morrish explained.

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According to the report, TOPS has historically been difficult to reform, with lawmakers rejecting over 200 proposed changes to the tuition program in previous years.

The study group is slated to hold meetings at least twice a month through February, with the next session scheduled for September 28.

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