A state task force is trying to balance the Legislature's desire to help students pay for college with taxpayers' ability to foot the bill.

It's the latest in a long-running debate about TOPS, a state program that pays most of the tuition costs for Louisiana students who meet the program's academic requirements.

Since it started in 1997, taxpayers have spent more than $2 billion sending students to college. It will cost an estimated $292 million this year alone, and the annual cost will rise unless the Legislature does something about it.

Last week, a state task force looking for ways to address the costs received a report on how many students would likely lose the aid if the Legislature toughened the grades high school students must earn to receive it.

Under current rules, students have to earn at least a 2.5 grade-point average on a batch of specific, mostly college-prep courses. Raising the requirement to 2.75 would disqualify about 19 percent of students from TOPS. Raising the requirement to 3.0, a B average, would eliminate 44 percent of students.

Any decision will impact thousands of students, parents and taxpayers. About a third of Nicholls State University's 6,000 students receive TOPS scholarships. Across the state, 52,000 college students do.

The backdrop for all of this is years of repeated deficits -- and resulting budget cuts and tax increases -- that have plagued state government. The Legislature has, unfortunately, been reluctant to pass meaningful reforms that might put the state on more solid footing, relying instead on temporary fixes. Among those have been tuition hikes that have helped increase the cost of the TOPS aid program.

In 2016, lawmakers cut some TOPS aid but later restored most of it. They did cap the aid at 2016-17 tuition levels, so the amount students receive won't increase unless the Legislature votes to change it.

If nothing else comes from the task force's recommendations, due Feb. 15, these things would help:

Make a recommendation on whether TOPS should be based all or in part on students' and their families' financial wherewithal. It would be nice to give all of Louisiana's college-bound students free tuition, but the state and its taxpayers can't afford it. It's reasonable for the state to base the awards on students' not just on academic performance but on ability to pay.
Give the Legislature and the public a clear blueprint for making TOPS sustainable in the long-run. Outline the costs, options for paying for it and benefits to students and the state.

Those two things, especially the latter, would help lawmakers and their constituents decide whether the program should be enhanced, curtailed or scrapped altogether.

-- Editorials represent the opinion of this newspaper and not any person individually.