The year was 1988. A successful New Orleans businessman named Patrick F. Taylor had a speech to give. His audience was 183 restless middle school students who weren't college bound. Heck, many weren't even high school bound. They were bidding their time until they could drop out of school.
Instead of a pep talk, Taylor decided to make a pitch. He would pay for the kids to go to college if they kept going to class, stayed out of trouble and maintained a "B" average. With that promise, Taylor established the building blocks for TOPS.
TOPS (the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students) is the state-funded college scholarship program that has benefited more than 200,000 kids in Louisiana. It doesn't just send kids to LSU or Southern but it sends them to truck driving school if they want to drive a truck or to court reporting school if they want to become a court reporter.
In other words, TOPS fulfills dreams. Now some will tell you that TOPS has become too expensive. They'll tell you the sky is falling. They'll tell you the state budget is on a collision course, and TOPS is helping fuel the inevitable crash. They'll tell you that changes can be made gradually to make the program more affordable for the state. Here's what I say: Leave TOPS alone.
We can't afford to diminish what TOPS does for our state. The Hamilton Project, an arm of the Brookings Institution, crunched the numbers last year on what a college degree is worth. Not surprisingly, a degree in chemical engineering is more of a moneymaker than a drama degree. Also not surprising, any degree is better than no degree. The Hamilton Project's conclusion: "Median earnings of bachelor's degree graduates are higher than median earnings of high school graduates for all 80 majors studied."
For every successful college dropout like Bill Gates, there are a thousand other dropouts clocking in at minimum wage jobs and not making a living wage. Patrick Taylor knew the importance of a college education. He left home at 16 and made his way to LSU, which didn't charge tuition at the time. Today, it easily costs $10,000 in tuition and fees a year to attend LSU as a full-time student once books and summer classes are included.
That's a hefty bill for a middle class family with four other kids still at home. Now I don't want to shock you, but Louisiana is not a wealthy state. Median income is well below the national average. We're rich in culture, food, history and tradition. Economically, we often struggle. That's why education is so important.
Our future can be better than our present or our past, but only if our kids go to school. We offer our kids a free elementary school education. We offer them a free high school education. But a high school education isn't always enough. We need to continue to offer young Louisianans help with a college education if we expect them to succeed in a keenly competitive, global, knowledge-based economy. We also need to continue to give them an incentive to stay in Louisiana, instead of migrating to Denver and Dallas and Atlanta.
Georgia has a form of TOPS. It's called HOPE. In 2011, big changes were made to HOPE – changes that were made in the name of saving the state money. Suddenly, technical college students had to maintain a higher GPA as well as tuition assistance slashed. The result was that 62,504 fewer kids received HOPE.
Within two years, Georgia backpedaled on the changes. We should not make the same mistake in Louisiana that Georgia made. TOPS has been a roaring success. Sixty nine percent of the more than 62,000 students who received an initial TOPS payment between the 2002-03 and 2006-07 academic years graduated from a Louisiana public college. That's a triumph.
I'll leave you with Patrick Taylor's take on why TOPS matters: "Attendance at public colleges and universities must be based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay."