TOPS Task Force members arrived for Thursday’s meeting to find massive books of data before them.
"You asked us to look at the implications of the biggest buckets of changes that have been proposed in TOPS," Dr. Sujuan Boutte, director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance explained, with a rueful chuckle.
"This drills down on changes in the eligibility criteria; changes in the award amount — and we focused on the flat award amount; changes to TOPS Tech. And if you make TOPS be a loan-repayment program or loan-forgiveness program, what are the ramifications of that?”
New Orleans Representative Gary Carter asked, "What about a need-based component to TOPS? Do we have that being considered as well?"
"No, sir," Boutte responded. "It's not been proposed as much as these other options have."
The data showed changing TOPS Tech awards to TOPS Tech-Plus-Two — which would give community college students two more years of tuition assistance at a university once they completed an associate degree — would end up increasing the overall costs of TOPS.
Converting TOPS to a loan repayment/forgiveness program would not be cost efficient, either, Boutte said, since administrative costs to run a repayment/collections division would outstrip the potential amount to be recovered.
Shreveport Representative Thomas Carmody questioned that conclusion.
"But the percentage losing the award in their first year is 16.2 percent!" he insisted.
"Yes, but it's important to remember that 82.4 percent of TOPS recipients have either completed with a credential, or are still enrolled," Boutte responded.
The quickest change would be conversion to flat awards — $5,000-per-year for university students and $3,000 per year for technical and community college students.
"If you wanted to do full implementation in fall of 2018, all recipients paid a flat award amount, you would see potential savings of $18-19-million per year," Boutte said.
The biggest savings would come from increasing the qualifying requirements: raising the GPA, increasing the required ACT score, or some combination of both.
For example, just raising the GPA from 2.5 to 2.75 would save 20 percent of TOPS' current $300-million annual cost. Upping the required ACT score from 20 to 21 would save 27 percent. And raising the GPA to 3.0 while increasing the ACT score to 22 would reduce state spending on TOPS by an estimated 80 percent per year.
Carmody seemed to lean toward increasing the ACT score as a reasonable change.
Currently, TOPS students have an average ACT score of 24?” he asked Boutte.
"Then it appears that our students that are working toward this are doing better than, I guess basically, where we have the bar set right now," he concluded.
As the data books closed, Task Force chair Blade Morrish announced, "We have received all of the information. It's right here. Now we need to start to prepare our report, since our deadline for our report to the Legislature is February the 15th."