Column

Dear Mr. Governor: How you can help poor kids in Louisiana go to college

The TOPS merit-based scholarship program is in jeopardy, but it doesn’t have to be

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

State Capitol
900 North Third Street
Baton Rouge, LA  70804
April 4, 2017 

Dear Gov. John Bel Edwards, Sen. Dan Morrish and Rep. Nancy Landry:

 

I’m writing this letter because I believe that poverty should never stop someone from getting smarter, and I believe you do too.

 

With your help, we can sustain the Taylor Opportunity Scholarship Program, our merit-based scholarship program, by prioritizing funding for people who cannot afford college tuition. By dedicating our precious tax dollars to those who actually need scholarships, you will not only save the integrity of the state scholarship, you will remind us upper-income collegians of the value of paying it forward.

 

You can certainly blame cutting TOPS on the chronic fiscal crises in Louisiana spanning eight years. But let’s remember that our deficits are due in part to our inability to elevate the poor with high-skilled and better-paying jobs. In 2015, Louisiana had the third-highest poverty rate behind Mississippi and New Mexico at 19.6 percent, according to U.S. Census data. Eight years of cuts to higher education from 2007 to 2015 along with tuition increases didn’t help statewide college enrollments, which dropped by 4 percent during this period.

 

Improving the economy really means we have to uplift poor Louisianans. We can do that with our merit scholarship.

 

As a former college dean and manager of four schools, as well as a parent of one child currently in graduate school and another in kindergarten, I definitely want everyone to be able to pay for college. My family has scraped to pay tuition just like many other upper-middle-income families. However, the low-income students I oversaw taught me that tuition can be a major roadblock.

 

According to the Louisiana College Access Coalition, a group of colleges, schools and non-profits, more than 41 percent of current TOPS recipients come from families who earn $100,000 or more a year. In its 2015 Report on TOPS, the state’s governing body for higher education, The Louisiana Board of Regents, found that “since 2005, the number of TOPS recipients that came from households with incomes of $150,000 or more has more than doubled; whereas, the number of recipients from lower-income households has remained relatively stagnant over time.”

 

Doling out tax dollars to students who can’t demonstrate a financial need isn’t responsible. It amounts to a tax break for upper-income parents. The state’s budget woes did not stop my daughter from going to college. Those who have an ability to pay, will.

 

You will get a lot of pushback from my upper-middle-class colleagues who say that they can barely afford to pay for their child to go to college. Well, if someone with a good paying job can’t afford college, then what is a hotel worker or fast food employee to do? In response I say, fill out a Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA). It can fairly determine our abilities to pay and can be used to determine eligibility for TOPS.

 

This upcoming legislative session you will see a bill sponsored by Louisiana State Rep. Gary Carter, Jr., that seeks to fully fund TOPS. If the state can’t afford to pay for all eligible recipients, the legislation calls for a tiered funding structure that prioritizes awards for low- and middle-income students, as well as first-generation collegians. It will also call the middle class’ bluff by requiring a completed FAFSA to evaluate TOPS eligibility.

 

The upper-middle class will undoubtedly oppose this bill. TOPS has become an entitlement for the rich that is draining state coffers and limiting the state from addressing the root problem of not moving the poor into the middle class. If you need a countering loud middle-class voice to support this bill, please don’t hesitate to call.

 

It’s time we paid our privilege forward. Let’s give the thousands of low-income residents what we take for granted — an opportunity.

 

Sincerely,

 

Andre Perry,

Education columnist, author and supporter of students everywhere

 

 

Want to help fight for TOPS?

 

Tell us your TOPS story.
Contact your representative.

 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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