By Jim Beam
BATON ROUGE — Louisiana students who receive TOPS scholarships won’t have to stay in the state after graduation to avoid paying back 50 percent of the free tuition they received while in college.
Rep. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, saw his payback proposal defeated 4-2 Thursday in the Senate Education Committee.
Legislators have been reluctant to change TOPS over the years, but they did set a tuition limit last year because of the tuition growth. The state from here on out will only pay the fiscal 2016-17 tuition amount unless lawmakers agree to increase it.
Senate Bill 110 would have applied to TOPS recipients who completed an associate, baccalaureate or postgraduate degree or a shorter education program. They would have had to show proof of residency to avoid paying back 50 percent of their tuition for each academic year they were in school.
Luneau built 11 exceptions into the legislation. It would have covered situations for people in rehabilitation or disability programs, a religious commitment, death of a member of the immediate family and military service.
The state Department of Revenue and the Louisiana Workforce Commission would have been responsible for implementing provisions of the law.
Sen. Beth Mizell, RFranklinton, used the example of a student whom she had awarded a Tulane Scholarship as a reason for opposing the law. She said the young lady wanted to become a research scientist and there is nothing available in that field in Louisiana. She said TOPS is designed to help students do great things wherever needed.
Luneau said TOPS has become an entitlement program that people expect to get without any obligations. He said some hard choices need to be made because the program in its current form is unsustainable.
Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said Alabama and Georgia are already luring away Louisiana students with scholarships that include books and tuition. He told Luneau his measure would give other states more ammunition.
Appel also talked about the state’s low job growth rate. He said it is seven-tenths of one percent, which he described as horrible.
“You would be penalizing young people for our failure to create jobs,” Appel said. “We caused the problem by not having a business climate that creates jobs.”
Luneau said legislators and others need to quit accentuating the state’s negatives and talk about its many positives. He mentioned the great job opportunities in Southwest Louisiana, where many billions of dollars worth of economic development is taking place.
“My bill isn’t a total fi x-it, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Luneau said.
Sen. Mike Walsworth, RWest Monroe, said Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas are waiving outof-state fees and don’t require any paybacks. He said getting the tuition money back would be another problem, saying it’s already hard to collect from deadbeat dads.
Dr. James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, for which the scholarships are named, said a U.S. Census mobility study showed that 78 percent of the students don’t leave Louisiana. Those that do so are because they go to Texas and California where the jobs are available.
Caillier said many McNeese State University graduates go to work in Texas where petrochemical jobs are located.
“TOPS hasn’t changed,” he said. “The goal is the same — prepare kids to succeed. Seventy-six percent graduate and it was never the intent to keep students here.”
Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings and chairman of the committee, said the 8 percent of students who get TOPS and don’t keep it is the lowest percentage in the nation. He said the dropouts were higher in the earlier years before the community college system was created and college admission standards were raised.
Luneau said he didn’t know if he agreed with the 8 percent fi gure, and ended debate with a question.
“Are we willing to change it (TOPS) to sustain it?” he asked.
Appel, Mizell, Walsworth and Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Baton Rouge, voted against the bill. Sens. John Milkovich, D-Keithville, and Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, voted for it. Morrish didn’t vote.