April 19, 2016; Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)

Louisiana’s budget woes continue. NPQ has reported on potential safety net hospital closures as a result of a projected $750 million state budget deficit. Now, scholarship support for students in postsecondary education is at risk.

Under current law, a shortfall in the state’s TOPS (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students) program would result in an arbitrary increase in the ACT standardized test score required to qualify for scholarship support, thereby protecting scholarship levels to recipients. With the $184 million cut proposed by Governor John Bel Edwards, more than 33,000 students would lose their scholarships as the required ACT score increases from 20 to 26. The Louisiana Senate, however, passed a new scholarship plan that would allow all currently eligible students to receive some TOPS scholarship support, though at a level about one-third of that currently provided.

While Edwards has signaled support for the Senate plan, its fate in the state House is uncertain. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry prefers to keep TOPS funding at its current level by making deeper cuts elsewhere, such as in tourism and related priorities under the lieutenant governor’s office. The lieutenant governor, of course, not only opposes such cuts (citing the $800 million in tourism revenue the state receives) but is offended by Henry’s making his proposals public without speaking with him first.

Ironically, the TOPS program supports state residents who attend Louisiana’s public colleges and universities, community and technical colleges, state-approved “Proprietary and Cosmetology Schools or institutions that are a part of the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.” In other words, overwhelmingly publicly-funded institutions. Less TOPS funding could have a direct impact on these schools, through decreased enrollment and/or increased demands on university endowments for student tuition support. Of course, at least some students will qualify for student loans to replace lost TOPS scholarships, but loans need to be repaid and student loan debt, as NPQ has reported, is already a recognized national economic problem disproportionately affecting women and minorities.

News reports indicate that the state is likely heading toward a special legislative session this year to deal with the budget deficit. Governor Edwards is pushing for the special session to start the day after the mandated end of the regular session in June, while House Appropriations Chair Henry would prefer a special session in the fall. Edwards’s response? “Good luck with that.”—Michael Wyland