Memorial Tower

The Memorial Tower sits on Dalrymple Drive on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017.

For the second time in three years, TOPS is at risk of being cut, leaving Louisiana college students and families wondering how they will come up with unexpected tuition dollars to cover the difference that the state will not pay.

A chaotic end to the second special session this year — and the sixth one since Gov. John Bel Edwards took office in 2016 — left TOPS only 70 percent funded, and slashed higher education funding for colleges and universities by nearly 25 percent.

And as LSU has the most TOPS recipients in the state, students are faced with the possibility of covering $2,200 next year. With the cut to higher education, the University would face a roughly $21 million reduction, which would affect classes, facilities and support services.

The threat to TOPS typically results in University students taking on second jobs or missing out on additional educational opportunities – or even considering transferring to schools out-of-state who have more to offer.

“If I was a high school senior again this year, I think I would be looking out-of-state,” said LSU Student Government vice president Rachel Campbell.

Campbell, a mass communication senior from Mandeville, said she had competitive scholarships with several out-of-state schools when she was a senior in high school, including University of Alabama, which was willing to offer her a full-ride, including room and board plus study abroad opportunities.

Campbell stuck with LSU primarily because she was a fan of the Manship School of Mass Communication’s political communication program, and because TOPS was available to her the year she had to make her choice.

Campbell said during her sophomore year at the University in 2017, her parents encouraged her to apply to other schools and consider transferring — or see if Alabama was willing to grant any version of their original offer — when TOPS funding was “shaky” before eventually being only partially funded.

Though she considered transferring, she decided to stay at LSU with her parents’ help and her position as a Residential Assistant on campus, which helped her costs of housing and provided a partial meal plan. She also stayed at LSU on the promise that TOPS would be fully funded in the future.

Campbell made it through the TOPS cut, but she sympathizes for incoming students who may miss out on additional educational opportunities.

“I paid for my study abroad [trip] last summer, but I don’t think I’d be able to swing something like that if TOPS was continually underfunded,” Campbell said. “It makes essentials a question mark on whether or not you can afford it. It makes extra opportunities not even an option anymore.”

LSU President F. King Alexander said the uncertainty is creating “question marks in parents’ and students’ minds” about whether TOPS will be a sustainable program.

If TOPS is cut, Alexander said LSU is unable to offset the difference for students next year because it has the most TOPS-eligible students in the state.

About 52,000 students in Louisiana receive TOPS. Of the nearly 26,000 undergraduate students at the University, about 15,000 use TOPS, Alexander said.

Two special sessions have been called this year alone to address the looming $650 million fiscal cliff the state faces when more than $1 billion in temporary sales taxes expire June 30. Legislators have repeatedly attempted, and failed, to pass revenue-raising measures to plug the hole, primarily disagreeing on how much of the sales tax hike to renew or what state services to cut.

But even if the legislature successfully funds TOPS, which is not a guarantee, higher education officials say that the uncertainty has already hurt them with students and prospective students. Most students make decisions by mid-spring, sometimes even earlier.

“It becomes attractive to look at University of Alabama, which is not that far away, to get a full ride,” said James Caillier, the executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, which is named after the TOPS co-founder. “But if they knew they had TOPS early, that’s enough to keep them in Louisiana.”

Biochemistry senior Robert Henderson was also faced with offers from out-of-state schools like University of Denver and University of Connecticut but ultimately chose the University because of the aid of TOPS.

Henderson said he had to take out extra student loans to cover his housing and additional costs when TOPS was cut in 2017. He faces that same possibility now, as well as getting a second job — leaving less time to focus on studies.

“Had I known that TOPS was going to be unreliable, I probably would not have stayed here,” Henderson said. “It wouldn’t have cost me much more to go anywhere else.”

Lance Chaisson, who graduated from Catholic High School in Baton Rouge in 2017, was set to pursue LSU up until his junior year of high school — but University of Alabama had more to offer him.

Chaisson took Alabama up on its offer and received full tuition coverage for four years, as well as a stipend from the engineering school for all four years to study chemical engineering.

LSU’s chemical engineering program is considered one of the best in the country.

“LSU should take a look [at] Alabama,” said Lance’s mother April Chaisson. “What they’re doing to get kids over there — it’s so surprising.”

The 2017-18 school year was the first time in a decade that both higher education and TOPS were fully funded. And higher education leaders say just giving schools one year without cuts yielded tangible benefits that are all at risk of being undone again.

“The shining hope in all this is that our recruiting efforts this year have just dwarfed everyone else in the SEC,” Alexander said.

Since 2017, the University has seen a 109 percent increase in out-of-state students and a 22 percent increase for in-state students for the 2018-19 school year, according to LSU chief enrollment officer Jose Aviles, who said the numbers are calculated to include students who have made a commitment to enroll by submitting a deposit to LSU.

Additionally, of that increase, the University is up by 27 percent for students who come from the state of Alabama.

Alexander said the recent success comes from the ability to offer students scholarships and focus on recruitment.

“We went from playing defense to playing offense,” he said. “We’re right in the heat of competition for Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.”

Alexander also said the year of stability resulted in the University’s largest faculty cohort since he became president in 2013, the second largest graduating class in May 2018 and the largest incoming freshman class for fall 2018.

“Hold us whole, let us do our jobs,” he said as a message to legislators, “and you’ll see some outstanding numbers.”

SG representatives have publicized their efforts to contact legislators and urge the full funding of TOPS and higher education, inviting students to join their pleas at the Capitol on June 20.

“Now is the time to make your voices heard,” said SG president Stewart Lockett in an emailed statement. “It’s not too late to reverse these cuts.”

The potential loss in TOPS funding comes at a time when a record 52 percent of Louisiana’s high school graduating class — which is about 19,200 students — qualified for one of the four types of TOPS awards.

Louisiana is spending about $292 million for TOPS this year, which includes tuition coverage and, in some cases, stipends for high-achieving students.

“Louisiana should make a commitment up front that the money will be available,” Caillier said. “We don’t need any more broken promises. We have too many broken promises in Louisiana, especially to our young people.”

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