Take the worst of the Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) entitlement program, amplify it, and you get the new MJ Foster Promise Program.
Last week, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law the bill that would provide up to $10.5 million a year for approximately 3,281 students to attempt completion of associate degrees and certificates. It largely mimics TOPS, which applies to bachelor degrees, and is named after Republican former Gov. Mike Foster, who died earlier this year and instigated the state’s system of community colleges and technical schools.
TOPS has become infamous as an entitlement masquerading as a “scholarship” program. For students that qualify, which all that means is taking a useful set of core courses, compiling decent grades, and earning mediocre standardized test scores, the state pays all tuition but not fees for pursuit of any bachelor degree as long as the student performs at an average level at first then keeps grades high enough to stay off probation while earning a minimum of 24 credits a year for four years.
Promise has the same concept, but with several significant differences. It has an income test, but at 300 percent of the federal poverty limit only wealthier households wouldn’t qualify (but these could if an applicant suffers long-term unemployment). It has no qualifications necessary except state residency, good behavior, and a desire to enroll in one of five higher-demand degree/training programs. As long as a student stays off probation (2.0 grade point average or higher), he continues to qualify for up to three years and 60 credit hours. Students also pledge to work in the state for a year after completion, And, expenditures are capped at the $10.5 million figure, but is subject to annual appropriation; the Legislature shunted $5 million to it for its first year.
TOPS rightfully has drawn criticism for its lax standards that encourage marginal students to attend college, with a significant portion then dropping out and wasting taxpayer dollars. Promise provides an even greater perverse incentive to do this, as well as funding even lower relative performance (and has the unenforceable requirement for recipients to remains in state after completion). Perhaps its only saving grace on this account compared to TOPS is, as it is funded at a maximum of about one-thirtieth of TOPS, it will waste much less money.
Its backers may claim the funding could spur economic development in a state recognized as well behind in that endeavor. Maybe, but it is an extremely inefficient means of doing so, especially compared to tackling the structural problem that makes higher education in Louisiana so wasteful; i.e., too many institutions chasing too few students. You fix that not by artificially pumping up student numbers through free tuition, but by cutting back on institutions and using the savings to keep tuition down and to give out more need-based grants.
With TOPS long in need of reform to reward excellent rather than average (if not worse) scholastic aptitude and effort, it would be too much to expect Louisiana legislators not to spread yet more money out to the public (as well as to constituencies such as higher education) in handouts to more potential students. Promise represents yet another needless new commitment in a state whose insufficient economic development can’t afford such generosity.