Bills that would raise standards for TOPS scholarship students narrowly passed their first test Thursday in the House Education committee.
Rep. Barry Ivey’s (R-Central) bill would raise the college GPA requirements for nearly half of the TOPS students. Right now, in order to keep the scholarship, they have to maintain a 2.3 GPA their first year in college, and a 2.5 their second year and beyond. That would increase to a 2.5 and a 2.75.
"If we're gonna spend the hard-earned tax dollars," Ivey said, "we're gonna ask them to work a little bit harder."
If they can't maintain the required GPA or they drop out, Representative Ray Garofalo’s (R-Chalmette) bill would make students pay back the TOPS scholarship.
“It's not just like a gift. These are taxpayer dollars that people have worked hard for," he told members of the committee.
Students would be responsible for money they received before their grades fell or they dropped out. There are some exceptions to repayment, like if health problems make going to school too difficult.
But because TOPS doesn't cover the full cost of college, Rep. Julie Emerson (R-Carencro) says this bill could place an added burden on students who drop out for financial reasons.
"It would be hard if a student gets into a program their first year and realizes just the financial hardship that they can't meet and has to drop out and then we give them more of a financial hardship," she explained.
On average, more than 5,500 TOPS awards are canceled each year. That could generate more than $7 million for the state in 2020. But Rep. Garofalo says that's not his motivation.
"My goal is more to provide the incentive to stay in school, do well and graduate than it is to recoup the money," he said.
TOPS costs the state nearly $300 million a year. The program's funding has been uncertain in the face of continued budget shortfalls.
If approved by the full Legislature, both bills would impact students graduating from high school in the 2017-2018 school year.