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If TOPS must get cut, make sure the well-to-do — not the poor — bear the burden

Andre Perry

Andre Perry

I believe that poverty should never stop someone from getting smarter.

Louisiana needs to sustain TOPS — the Taylor Opportunity Scholarship Program — by prioritizing funding for people who cannot afford college tuition. Yes, that may mean cutting off recipients from well-to-do families, a move that is sure to meet with resistance.

But by dedicating our precious tax dollars to those who actually need scholarships, the governor and legislative leaders can not only save the integrity of the state’s merit-based scholarship program, they can remind us upper-income collegians of the value of paying it forward.

Yes, state leaders have a handy excuse for cutting TOPS funding. They can blame it on the chronic fiscal crisis in Louisiana resulting from the disastrous budgeting practices embraced during the eight years under Governor Bobby Jindal. 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 scholarships.

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. But the low-income students I oversaw taught me that tuition challenges can be more than a challenge; they can stop an aspiring student in his or her tracks and derail dreams of working one’s way out of poverty.

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 $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.

The governor and legislators can expect 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 Student Aid (FAFSA). It can fairly determine our abilities to pay and can be used to determine eligibility for TOPS.

The upcoming legislative session will debate 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: not moving the poor into the middle class.

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

Hechinger logoAndre Perry, PhD, a Hechinger Report contributing writer, is the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously, Perry worked as head of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network. His book, “The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City,” was published in 2011. Tweet him @andreperryedu 

This column is adapted from a letter being sent to Governor John Bel Edwards and state legislative leaders Dan Morrish in the Senate and state Attorney General Jeff Landry*. It is being published simultaneously by the Hechinger Report. 

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

*Landry’s office was misidentified in an earlier edition.

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