For 20 years Louisiana students and their parents have taken comfort in the knowledge that regardless of their economic background, if they worked hard, their college tuition would be paid for by the TOPS program. Sadly, Governor John Bel Edwards’ budget policies ambushed current TOPS students and placed future TOPS scholars, and the entire program, in jeopardy.
For the first time in history TOPS is on the chopping block. Students who held up their end of the bargain and met all the requirements for TOPS saw Governor Edwards and the legislature renege on the promise made to them. Beginning in the spring semester of 2016, students were unexpectedly faced with a large cash payment that was due immediately if they wanted to continue their education. At LSU Baton Rouge the bill was over $1,500, a daunting amount to students and parents who were already struggling to afford college at TOPS full-tuition levels. The governor’s proposed 2017 budget promises even further cuts to TOPS.
As a candidate, John Bel Edwards promised to keep TOPS funded. Instead he became the first governor to cut TOPS funding and then refused to fully fund it in his budget.
LSU President F. King Alexander fears cuts to the TOPS program will result in the loss of Louisiana’s best and brightest students to other schools out of state, as other schools have begun recruiting our scholars to leave the state.
TOPS is an acronym that stands for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. TOPS was designed to provide state-funded, merit-based scholarships to Louisiana high school students. The goal was to entice our brightest kids to stay in the Pelican State by paying 100 percent tuition for TOPS recipients.
To add insult to injury, as college tuition costs continue to skyrocket across the nation Edwards and the legislature signed a measure preventing TOPS scholarship awards from automatically rising with tuition too.
The program started in 1988 as the brainchild of billionaire oilman Patrick Taylor who wanted to motivate 183 underprivileged children at a New Orleans middle school. He wanted them to know that if he could overcome his background and succeed, they could too. Taylor told students that if they stayed in school and made good grades in college prep classes he would personally pay for their college tuition. “I want every kid in Louisiana to look at me and say, ‘If that dumb son of a bitch can do it, so can I’ ” Taylor said in 2004.
Pat Taylor’s program inspired Governor Buddy Roemer to create a similar statewide plan for other Louisiana students in 1989. The program was expanded beyond low-income students and grew to cover any Louisiana student. In 2008, to honor the plan’s founder, it was renamed the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
Year after year Louisiana has ranked at or near the bottom in national education studies and with the creation of TOPS the state was receiving national acclaim for the innovative program. Louisiana was a trendsetter and the TOPS program was the first of its kind in the nation. Mike Wallace and CBS’ 60 Minutes profiled the new idea. With the initial help and encouragement of Pat Taylor himself, similar programs have now spread to 23 states.
The number of Louisiana students receiving TOPS has successfully grown since the program’s inception. In 1999 23,614 students received awards. By 2014, that number had nearly doubled in size, an astounding feat that reflected the desires of both parents and students to obtain higher education.
Cuts to the TOPS program mean more than a financial hardship to Louisiana scholars. According to a Board of Regents report, TOPS students graduate at higher rates than those who attend Louisiana colleges without the award. TOPS recipients graduate at twice the rate of non-recipients, with 62 percent graduating compared to 31 percent.
Through four governors, both Republicans and Democrats, and 26 state budgets, the legacy of TOPS has continued. Every one of these governors found a way to prioritize funding this program. Governor Edwards has chosen to cut and underfund TOPS, sadly gutting a landmark program that has benefitted Louisiana on every level. Governor John Bel Edwards has shortchanged this critical program and displayed a lack of leadership by refusing to allocate the $291 million investment to cover full tuition for eligible students.