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HB 490 by Rep. Joe Harrison would cap a TOPS award at $1,600 a term. He said costs were escalating and wanted to sunset it for three years to see how it would work in these times of budgetary stress. Otherwise, he feared it might be dismantled as has happened elsewhere.
Rep. Pat Smith asked where he got the figure. Harrison said it wasn’t related to tuition but an actuarial figure. She noted it would remove the different categories of awards. Also, if schools got the ability to raise tuition, the cap would remain.
Rep. Billy Chandler asked would this not mean that some students wouldn’t be able to attend college? Harrison that in a comprehensive restructuring of higher education it would improve higher education to make it more attractive to students, so maybe in a sense tuition might go up for some but extra cost would be more than made up for in improved quality and adequacy of that education.
Rep. Elton Aubert wanted to know what TOPS covered now. Eventually, it was determined that in many cases most tuition still would be covered at its current levels. Rep. Hollis Downs asked whether Harrison would instead put a moving cap on TOPS; Harrison was noncommittal. Downs said if not now it should be later in the process.
Speaking for the university systems, Jim Callier said they opposed the bill that it would affect a program that has above-average students and completers. He said not to tamper something that worked. He said not a program anywhere had yet been eliminated. Harrison noted programs had been reduced. Callier also said that recent growth in the program had been small and handled by the trust fund set up for funding it.
Rep. John Bel Edwards said he worried that this would have a disproportionate impact on minorities and others from attending especially four-year institutions. Harrison said accountability was important and this would help it, and that there would be other mechanisms to help the truly needy.
After Rep. John Schroder, who noted Georgia required a 3.0 GPA for its program, offered a motion to pass, Chandler asked for a motion to defer. All present but Schroder and Rep. Jane Smith voted for that.
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HB 905 by Harrison would raise the grade point average required to get the four-year TOPS award. Harrison said raising the bar from 2.5 to 3.0 GPA would send better-prepared students to college and not waste TOPS funds, and would provide incentive for children to do better in school.
Rep. Herbert Dixon said he didn’t see any savings from this bill, because the TOPS Tech award would not be affected by the bill and get increased demand. Harrison challenged that fiscal note and said he saw something not measured by cost, a better educational experience. Rep. Frank Hoffman wondered whether some additional accommodation would be made for those that would no longer would qualify to attend a community college; Harrison expressed willingness.
Downs said Hoffman’s suggestion would be complicated, and also brought up the issue of core curriculum and thought that needed to be addressed. He recognized this too was outside the purview of the bill, and said these things needed to be pursued in addition to Harrison’s bill.
Pat Smith said the bill would cut out a lot of students and some with a 2.5 GPA were doing well in college. She said a better way to go would be to support legislation to expand the GO Grants, gifts made regardless of merit.
Hoffman offered an amendment to exclude anything to do with home-schooled students since they had no GPAs and still had other (higher) requirements to meet. It passed without objection. Rep. Bubba Chaney wondered whether the cutoff should be 2.75 than 3.0, but offered no amendment at that time.
Callier reappeared, saying the change would lop off a quarter of recipients, of whom over half graduate, disproportionately minority. He said making the core curriculum more challenging, as was being done. Harrison said he’d be glad to have Callier rewrite the bill and would defer it voluntarily to improve it. Thus it was done.