May 31, 2016 10:43 AM
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — If cuts fall on the TOPS college tuition program, lawmakers want every student eligible for the award to get some money from the state.

Under current law, if TOPS isn't fully funded, only students with the highest scores on the ACT college entrance exam receive the tuition aid. The bill by Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, calls for across-the-board cuts if the program is short of the money to pay for all eligible students.

That would leave students on the hook for the rest of their tuition bills. Students that couldn't afford to go to school because of the cut could take a deferment of their TOPS awards for up to five years.

The Senate voted 36-1 Monday for the measure, sending it to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who supports it and is expected to sign it into law.

The nearly 20-year-old program, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is much beloved among middle-class families. But its price tag has grown as colleges have boosted their tuition rates to compensate for cuts to their state financing.

TOPS will cost $294 million in the upcoming 2016-17 school year to cover the more than 50,000 eligible students, but the program is only slated to get a portion of that because of Louisiana's ongoing financial problems. The budget proposal for next year advancing in the Senate only includes 48 percent of the financing needed to pay for all eligible TOPS students.

Under Morrish's bill, the across-the-board reduction also would fall on the stipends that some higher-achieving students receive with their TOPS awards.

But it wouldn't hit a program — known as TOPS Tech Early Start — that offers awards of up to $600 annually for public school students who also enroll for up to six college credit hours per semester to get a training certification while still in high school.

Edwards hopes to raise money to stave off cuts to the TOPS program and other budget areas in a special legislative session on taxes, scheduled to begin next week after the regular legislative session ends.