By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor
Louisiana higher education officials testified before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, fielding questions on requested increases in student aid, a dip in the TOPS scholarship program and efforts to keep graduates in state, among other issues.
The hearing centered on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed spending increase of $111 million across higher education, with $75.6 million directly from the state’s general fund. About $31.7 million would go to increase faculty salaries across all of the state’s higher education institutions, $17.2 million for state services at those facilities and a boost of $15 million for the higher education funding formula.
Funding for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS), Louisiana’s merit-based scholarship program, would remain flat around $331 million, of which $272.5 million would come from the general fund. Officials told the committee the funding request for the program is essentially plateaued because demand for scholarships has declined during the pandemic.
Sen. J. Cameron Henry Jr., R-Metairie, questioned whether officials were working with schools to understand why fewer students are seeking the scholarships.
Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed said officials are conducting student focus groups and reaching out to schools to get to the reason for the decline.
Sujuan Boutte, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOFSA), is “is working on that information and we’ll share that with you mid-April.”
Multiple lawmakers also questioned the high cost of the TOPS program.
“I think at some point we have to explain it and see what kind of bang for the buck we’re getting for this program,” Sen. Mack White, R-Baton Rouge, said. “Every year we’re putting more and more money in it, and it’s getting very expensive.”
Boutte noted some of the benefits.
“TOPS students are graduating at higher rates, even if a TOPS student … does not complete all eight semesters,” she said. “About 80% of those students who either kept the award the entire time or didn’t, stayed enrolled, so they are completing at higher rates than non-TOPS recipients. Their grade point averages are higher than non-TOPS recipients. Their ACTS are higher than non-TOPS recipients. And they’re taking the challenging curricula. That was the point of the program.”
Demand for other student aid is increasing, resulting in a request for $15 million for Go Grants need-based scholarships, as well as $10.5 million for adult scholarships. The demand on staff at LOFSA is growing with it, and the department is asking for $2.1 million in addition to the existing $1.9 million budget to support students, Boutte said.
“We’re going to increase college advising for returning adults as well as bolster college advising for students who are not covered by federally funded gear up,” she said of the need for the increase.
Multiple lawmakers suggested a closer look at how many scholarship recipients are staying in the state after graduation. Boutte suggested the dynamic of students leaving rests largely on various business and cultural issues to ensure competitive pay and quality of life.
“Right now, our focus is on can we incent them to stay for higher education, because other states are recruiting actively our bright students coming out of K-12,” she said.
State officials do not have data on the numbers of students staying in the state after graduation, Boutte said.
Other questions centered on what higher education institutions are doing now to help fill high-demand jobs like nursing.
Reed said universities are using funding approved by the Legislature last year to boost nursing, both in terms of students and staff.
“We’re seeing more students – [fiscal year] 22 was approximately 100 more students; [fiscal year] 23 approximately 311 more students in the pipeline than we had before,” she said, adding that nurse educators are being recruited away at the same time.
Officials invested $200,000 in 2020 to build nursing faculty, and went from 40 new current faculty in 2019 to 58 additional faculty in the pipeline, Reed said.