May 13, 2014 5:59 AM by AP
Louisiana won't raise eligibility standards for the state's free college tuition program called TOPS.
The Senate voted 23-16 Monday against a proposal to increase the minimum grade point average and ACT score required to get a TOPS award for future students.
Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said his bill was a way to curb the expense of a program expected to cost $250 million during the next budget year and $387 million by 2019.
"It's a small increase, raises the bar slightly. Perhaps our students will strive a little harder," Donahue said.
Louisiana has among the most generous tuition aid programs in the nation.
Currently, to get the basic TOPS scholarship that covers all tuition costs, a graduating high school student must have a 2.5 GPA on core curriculum and a 20 ACT score. Donahue's bill would have changed that to a 2.75 GPA and a 21 ACT score.
The ACT score that's needed to obtain additional, higher-paying TOPS awards for higher-performing students also would increase.
"Because someone is not eligible for TOPS, it does not end their educational career," Donahue said.
Opponents argued the state shouldn't reduce tuition assistance. They credited TOPS with helping more students get college degrees in a state that is among the poorest in the country and that has among the lowest rates of educational attainment beyond high school.
"Let's don't turn our back on the kids that need us in this state," said Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi.
Before the bill was rejected, Sen. J.P. Morrell succeeded in adding language that would have made students repay the free tuition if they don't maintain the GPA and course level requirements to keep TOPS in the first year of school.
Morrell, D-New Orleans, said the change was designed to make college freshmen take their education more seriously. Supporters of Morrell's amendment said more than half the students who get a TOPS award lose it.
"We don't get money for TOPS from a money tree we shake in the backyard," Morrell said.
Donahue could try to bring the bill up again before the session ends, but passage seemed unlikely.
The nearly 20-year-old program is popular among Louisiana parents and middle-class voters, and lawmakers repeatedly reject efforts to make changes. Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes the bill, and opposition crosses party lines.
"You don't want to go home having voted for this," warned Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.
The changes would have started in four years, with high school students who graduate in the 2017-18 school year. Twenty-five percent of the savings from raising eligibility standards would have been used to pay for needs-based aid for college students, through Louisiana's GO Grant program.