‘You Can Go to College: It’s Not Just a Promise, It’s the Law’

By Sarah Bahn and Andrew Milner

Sarah Bahn  07 Andrew Milner

In 1989, the US state of Louisiana passed a law that all children who achieve certain academic standards should be allowed to go to college regardless of their parents’ ability to pay.  This was the culmination of four years of campaigning by the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, led by businessman Patrick Taylor. For funders of all sizes looking to make a bigger impact through advocacy, this is an example of how one small foundation extended an individual philanthropist’s values to generate far-reaching structural changes.

As a man from a poor family, Patrick Taylor was granted a full scholarship to Louisiana State University. He subsequently set up the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation in 1985 following success in the oil and gas industry, through which he and his wife promised to pay for 183 children from poor families in New Orleans to attend college, provided they studied diligently, maintained a certain academic standard, and stayed out of trouble. Taylor realized that to expand his idea of a college education based on merit rather than wealth to all students, the state would have to fund it. Despite rules that must be followed when U.S.-based foundations engage in advocacy, there is a lot that taking a stance on an issue can do. The Patrick F. Taylor Foundation recognized their opportunity to make major systemic change, even as a small foundation. 07 TOPS Taylor You Can

After a tough fight, the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) was passed by the state of Louisiana in 1989, guaranteeing college attendance for every child in Louisiana who performs at a certain level, regardless of financial status. Despite the continued struggle with the legislature each year as tuition costs rose, TOPS has become very popular among students and parents for giving families access to higher education that they could not otherwise afford.

Moreover, apart from the fairness of its premise, the Program has had a number of important practical benefits. It has drastically improved college graduation rates in Louisiana and keeps talented young people in state for their college studies. Additionally, the program has led to a huge increase in representation of minority students in Louisiana higher education. However, one of the most significant effects of the TOPS program has been on the state’s high schools. To qualify for TOPS funding, students have to meet curriculum requirements by taking courses in Math, English, Science, Social Studies, Arts, and Foreign Language that prepare them for college, which 76% of high school students complete. Even for students who don’t continue on to college, there is a bigger focus on achievement in high schools, which has also led to higher rates of parent involvement.

Following adoption of TOPS in Louisiana, the Taylor Foundation began campaigning for similar programs in states across the country. With the data from Louisiana, it was a simple case to present. There are now similar initiatives in 20 states. What started off as an act of philanthropic generosity has now been institutionalized as a right. The TOPS program has opened up the possibility of higher education to all Louisiana high school students, raised the quality of the state’s education, and created a sense of identity and common goals among students from diverse backgrounds. Most important of all, TOPS has offered students the possibility of beginning their adult lives on equal footing. The Taylor Foundation’s transition from local grantmaking to national systems change shows the power of even small foundations to generate institutional solutions to big issues beyond just offering funding.