TOPS may not be toppling over

Lauren Saizan

For the 658 students at Loyola receiving TOPS this semester, their education was put at risk when Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the suspension of the payments from the program on Feb. 11.

Tommy Screen, director of government relations at Loyola, explained that the suspension was only temporary, and that shortly after, it was announced that the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance plans to cover 80 percent of the payments for Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarship this semester.

How much of the remaining 20 percent the state will pick up, Screen said, is yet to be determined.

“The current legislative special session that is underway as we speak right now, they are determining how much of that 20 percent that’s left over the state is going to pick up,” Screen said.

Regardless of how much the state decides to cover, Screen said, referring to a university-wide email sent earlier this week by the Rev. Kevin Wildes, S.J., university president, the university plans to cover the rest.

Screen said that the future of TOPS beyond this semester will be determined in the regular session, which will start in March and end in June. Until then, he said it will be difficult to know the university’s plan should there be a shortfall in funding for Louisiana residents who receive TOPS.

“We will not have an idea until we know exactly what the funding is going to look like. We’re certainly paying attention to it. The university is proactively, through my office, alerting our state legislators and the folks that represent our students. I’m meeting with the SGA to organize an effort by our students to reach out to the legislators,” Screen said.

Despite the lack of information, Screen said that he is going to do everything in his power to fight to protect the funding.

“A lot of people have an anti-private mindset. They think that kids who come to Loyola shouldn’t receive TOPS. We’re going to have to fight that thought because of the budget shortfall,” Screen said. Folks are certainly going to be questioning whether or not private institutions should be recipients and to be perfectly honest, the answer’s really simple. Private institutions aren’t the recipients of the awards. Louisiana residents who are students are the recipients of the awards.”

Screen said that the TOPS program, as it currently stands, is likely not sustainable. According to him, the budget submitted by Gov. Edwards for next fiscal year calls for $60 million in funding for TOPS, which represents an approximately 80 percent cut in TOPS funding from last year.

“That is money that the state has to put towards TOPS because it’s a dedicated fund from the interest off the tobacco settlement that has to go to TOPS regardless,” Screen said. “At the bare minimum, there will be $60 million in funding for TOPS awards in the 2016-2017 academic year. Last year, there was approximately $235 million. So the number of awards would go from roughly 45,000 down to 9,000 at the current funding levels.”

Diane Ottallah, economics sophomore who currently receives TOPS, said that she may have to work more to be able to attend Loyola if she cannot receive TOPS in the future.

“If working more still isn’t enough to cover TOPS, I face a severe blow to my higher education, which ultimately hinders my goals for the future,” Ottallah said.

Ottallah said that she is frustrated that the state’s deficit has come to this.

“John Bel Edwards now has to focus on cleaning up the mess Jindal left behind just so Louisiana reaches a stable, functioning state before he can improve us as a state. This isn’t a Democratic or Republican thing, it is a making sensible decisions that benefit the state thing,” Ottallah said.

Roberta Kaskel, vice president of enrollment management, said that she is very hopeful that the state will continue to support all Louisiana college students.

“Unfortunately, it is too early to know what changes might occur, if any, regarding individual criteria for the program and if changes would apply to current students and new students in a similar fashion,” Kaskel said.

Screen said that he would be shocked if the rules regarding TOPS did not change during the regular session of the legislature later this year.

“If we want there to be a sustainable TOPS program in the future, we’re likely going to have to change the rules due to the ever-increasing costs of the program. It’s a lot better to change rules and make sure there’s still a program of some sort as opposed to no program at all,” Screen said.