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April 27, 2017
Louisiana public colleges are being threatened with budget cuts for the tenth year straight.
The state has an $82 million shortfall in TOPS funds to award full scholarships to all eligible students next year. Although Gov. John Bel Edward’s proposed budget fully funds TOPS for this upcoming year, it will not be successful unless the Legislature agrees to find or raise new revenue. This would most likely be through tax increases.
David Whitney, assistant professor of government, said, “The reason TOPS is broke is because higher education, since 2008, had its funding cut in half. Louisiana spends about $700 million less annually on its public colleges than it did ten years ago.”
The burden of the cost of higher education has shifted from primarily state funding to the students.
“TOPS is getting more expensive because tuition is going up, but the reason tuition is going up is because the state is giving less money to universities,” Whitney said. “Ten years ago, the state was paying about two-thirds of the burden of the operating costs for universities and students were picking up a third. Now, it is reversed.”
Legislators received a lot of blowback from last year’s TOPS cuts. The scholarship covered 72 percent of what would be needed to cover students’ full tuition bills.
Skiye Brant, junior culinary major from Mandeville, explained how the system is putting her in more debt.
“I’m moving off campus because of TOPS,” Brant said. “If my TOPS hadn’t been cut, I wouldn’t have had to pay extra money out of pocket this semester. TOPS is making me move off-campus despite having a scholarship with Nicholls.”
The scholarship program impacts about 51,000 students in Louisiana.
At a budget hearing on April 12, lawmakers decided to drop a policy that would have made students who receive the scholarship take a minimum of 30 hours per school year as opposed to the 24-hour requirement in place now.
This would have put more students on track to finishing school in four years.
There are many factors being considered in the readjustment of TOPS.
According to an analysis from the Louisiana House fiscal office, the scholarships going to students from Louisiana’s wealthiest households have nearly doubled over the last ten years.
The share of TOPS funding going to students coming from middle and working class households, as well as those who are very poor, has dropped.
Whitney explained that cuts to higher education not only impact the individual, but the society as a whole. Louisiana has one of the worst records as far as the percentage of population that is educated in addition to having the highest incarceration rate.
Whitney said this is not a coincidence and people who get college degrees are much less likely to break the law and go to jail. They are also more likely to pay taxes as opposed to receiving welfare benefits.
“Higher education is a public good,” Whitney said.
The new budget year begins July 1 and there is not yet affirmation that public colleges funding will be cut.