The Corner

Education

One State Has Already Tried ‘Free College’ with Predictably Bad Results

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone went to college, got real smart, and made lots of money? That would give a state a tremendous boost, right?

Like all progressive schemes for reshaping the world, that fails. In today’s Martin Center article, Louisiana-based writer Kevin Boyd takes a look at a program in his state that gives students free college. Louisiana is still in its low economic orbit, but the costs to the state just keep escalating.

Boyd explains that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) started as a private initiative for a small number of poor students in 1988. Soon, however, the state took it over and, inevitably, it began to grow like mad. The program’s original income-cap was abolished in 1998 and academic eligibility standards were lowered. Supposedly, TOPS was needed to keep the state’s brightest students from going to college in other states, but no matter where a smart kid goes to college won’t tie him to his home state when better offers emerge elsewhere.

And whereas the program began as a means of helping the poor, it has turned into a huge subsidy for the middle class and wealthy.

As with any big subsidy program, TOPS has grown more and more costly to state taxpayers. Boyd writes, 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 studentsreceived an average award of $5,583.

Attempts at reforming TOPS have repeatedly failed in the state legislature.

Free” college is a lousy idea. Boyd concludes:

Creating a tuition-free college program offers an easy solution for rising tuition costs. Students and their parents see the cost reductions immediately. But free college programs, as seen in Louisiana, can quickly become an expensive, hard-to-reform mess. They may also be a short-term solution: The average tuition of four-year public colleges in Louisiana has grown 75 percent since 2011.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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