Martin Center column examines costs of ‘free’ college

Kevin Boyd writes for the Martin Center about Louisiana’s approach to “free” college.

Louisiana is the poster child for a program that started with the best of intentions, but has become uncontrollable in size and cost. Expanding free college has been easy, but taming it has been difficult—if not impossible.

Louisiana’s near-universal college program is the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS). It is based on a promise that oilman Patrick F. Taylor made in 1988 to a class of eighth-graders in a New Orleans school. He promised the class that if they held a “B” average throughout high school, he would pay for their college tuition.

Taylor’s program began life as a privately funded initiative for poor students. …

… In 1998, the state abolished the income cap and made TOPS a near-universal free college program to fight brain drain. Its best and brightest students were leaving for out-of-state universities, and expanding TOPS was a ploy to keep them in Louisiana. The program worked, as more and more students stayed in state. Doing so, however, shifted TOPS away from Taylor’s original mission to help poor students get a college degree.

Now, TOPS disproportionately benefits the middle class and the wealthy.

By 2008, for instance, 72 percent of TOPS recipients came from households with incomes of at least $50,000, according to a Louisiana Budget Project analysis. Though 56 percent of Louisiana households had incomes below $50,000, they comprised only 28 percent of TOPS recipients.

Share to TwitterShare to MoreState spending on TOPS exploded accordingly. The TOPS budget has quintupled, growing from $54 million in 1998 to $293 million in 2019. About 24,000 students received an average award of $2,293 in 1998, but, by 2019, more than 53,000 students received an average award of $5,583.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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