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PARTSCH: The misuse of TOPS hurts students, state

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TOPS has a long history of providing high school students in Louisiana an opportunity to pursue higher education within the borders of the state.
However, it has also taught them something far more damning --- how to exploit a government system.
Patrick F. Taylor’s progressive education initiative was originally designed to help low-income students, particularly African-American students, receive funding for a college education. The original legislation, signed into law in 1989 by Governor Buddy Roemer, was called the Louisiana College Tuition Plan (LCTP) and it became the first state-funded and merit-based college tuition program in the United States.
Taylor drew inspiration from the students at Livingston Middle School in New Orleans, a primarily African-American school filled with students from low-income households. That school closed after Hurricane Katrina and has never reopened.
The original plan required students to earn 17.5 units in the core curriculum, record a 18 composite score on the ACT, and earn a 2.5 grade point average. It also had an income cap of $35,000.
The state has spent the better part of the past two decades, though, watering down what Taylor’s original vision, and along the way further crippled the state’s long-standing budget woes.
In 1997, Governor Mike Foster signed a law that changed the program’s name a second time, to Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS), but he also put his signature on more damaging changes.
For one, the income cap was removed which broadened the amount of students who qualified for the funding, and secondly the amount of core curriculum was decreased to 16.5 units.
The result was, of course, more students receiving aid from the state and it appears to have helped graduation rates in the state. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, high school graduation rates reached an all-time high of 75 percent in Louisiana in 2014. The state itself has steadily increased with nearly a 10 percent increase since 2006. Without a doubt, TOPS has probably played a role in that rise.
However, it still hasn’t cured a major problem.
In a report authored by Opportunity Nation, published in U.S. News & World Report in 2014, the percentage of young people that are either not in school or working has increased steadily since 1990. The report stated the number of people between 16 and 24 that are not employed or in school increased by five percent, with the national average at 14.7 percent in 2010. In states such as Mississippi, Nevada and yes, Louisiana, the number rose to close to 20 percent.
Louisiana is 45th in the nation when it comes to the percentage of high schoolers who graduate within four years of starting ninth grade with a high school diploma.
The consequence of the state’s decision to change TOPS requirements nearly two decades ago is that it moved the program farther away from what it was intended to be, or more importantly, who it was intended to aid.
A report given to the Board of Regents in 2014 revealed that from 2003-14, 79 percent of those receiving the free college aid from the state were white and that the average household income of those receiving TOPS was between $70,000 to $99,000, while Louisiana’s median household income is of $44,164.
This means that the more-than-$2 billion dollars this economically-strapped state has spent on the program has directly aided individuals that come from households that can already afford college tuition.
We are teaching our young people, a generation that has been discouragingly raised with enough entitlements already, that it is acceptable to exploit a government program.
How is this any different than those individuals (of all sexes and races mind you) that abuse another social services with good intentions such as welfare and food stamps?
This is just like the person that makes your blood boil at the local grocery store. You know, the one who has filled up their shopping cart with products that you yourself can’t afford and wheels it out to a vehicle that you also can’t afford. All the while appearing to be in perfect health to work a 40-hour week job that could provide for their family.
That person is exploiting a system for personal gain. The same can be said for those parents that allow their children to do the same to go to college. Taking advantage of a flawed system is still taking advantage, regardless of how an individual may rationalize it.
I fully understand that TOPS has helped people get an education. I fully understand that probably thousands of students not only needed but deserved that help. But why is it the state’s responsibility to make sure your child gets to go college? Why isn’t your responsibility as a parent to make sure that happens?
My parents were never considered wealthy people. There were times that they could have honestly qualified to take advantage of government programs. Yet, my parents never once took a handout and that was especially the case when it came to my education.
My parents supported me as much as they financially could, helping paying my books for example, but the majority of cost of going to college fell upon me. I gladly accepted that because my parents instilled into me the importance of getting a college education. They and I both firmly believed that becoming the first in my family to obtain that elusive degree would open doors to me for the rest of the my life.
So I went to college right out of high school, and graduated from that junior college within two years. A decade later, I went to school here in Louisiana and got myself another associates degree and then a bachelor’s degree. Neither time did I depend on getting a loan or received financial aid. I paid for my tuition every semester while working a full-time job.
Is that some sort of unbelievable accomplishment that should be honored with a plaque or my own made for TV movie? No.
The piece of paper I received at graduation is all the satisfaction I need. That and the knowledge that I accomplished that without exploiting a system, intended to help, and more importantly motivate those who truly needed it.
Unfortunately, more and more parents have failed in teaching that important lesson to their children, and have instead passed down a lesson that will further hurt them, our schools and our state.

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