Amnesia seems to be running rampant as it relates to Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students and its intended purpose, with Dillard’s Walter Kimbrough’s recent op-ed piece and AP’s Melinda Deslatte certainly providing pointed examples.
Many do not seem to recall that Pat Taylor conceived and promoted a scholarship program in an effort to stem the flood of Louisiana’s best and brightest then choosing out-of-state universities over those in state. This purpose is reinforced as quoted in Kimbrough’s article: “They include promoting success and providing financial incentives. But a key point is to ‘promote access and success’ in postsecondary education.”
Granted, I am not an academician, but I think it must take a very creative mind to glean from that statement that “promote access and success” has a meaning of putting less-qualified students into our colleges on the state dole merely on the basis of their status in an underprivileged class.
He is also quick to jump to the conclusion that if low-income students do not do well on standardized testing, there must be something wrong with the testing standards; i.e., the standards are too high; we must lower the test score plateau.
To that point, the top score on the ACT is now 36. Qualifying for TOPS requires a 20 on the ACT. That would be a 55 percent score and, in all the schools I attended, a failing grade. How much lower do we need to push our standard to get more unqualified students into our colleges? As Deslatte pointed out, already one-third of TOPS recipients lose their benefits because they cannot maintain minimum academic requirements. So we need to add more?
To the point of working to retain our best and brightest (regardless of income level), we must keep in mind that other states continue to entice our children away. My niece and another neighbor’s daughter are both finishing their first year at University of Alabama —free tuition, books, room, board and a stipend — all with no FAFSA check of the parents’ income to qualify. Other surrounding states offer similar carrots to our best students. TOPS was intended to, in a small way, help keep these star students in state.
A small way, you might ask? Yes, compared to other out-of-state offers, TOPS only covers tuition up to a little over $1,800 per semester. With fees, room and board, books and expenses, LSU runs a total of $6,000-plus per semester, and Dillard, Kimbrough’s institution, more than $10,000. A small way, indeed.
Kimbrough is correct in citing the increasing need for postsecondary education, but he errs in thinking that this need will drive demand for small, liberal arts colleges like Dillard. The greatest void in education today is in technical skills. Drive up and down River Road, across Lafayette/Lake Charles and Bayou Lafourche, and see the number of billboards for high-paying technical jobs. Pay scales for computer and electronic technicians are off the charts with all the new tech companies moving into our state. In today’s world, you pay more per hour for plumbers than accountants. Most of these technical jobs pay more than those for which your liberal arts graduates will qualify.
The solution is not pushing more underqualified students into universities. It is not the university system’s or the testing program’s fault if they are underqualified for that track of education. The solution is finding ways to train our youth in skills that will bring them rewarding careers in growth areas of our economy. That is the way we all win: We keep our best and brightest in the state and give everyone the path to rewarding, well-paid careers.
Don Engler is a business development director in Metairie.