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Louisiana’s “free college” program was supposed to help the poor. It may have made things worse.

Once considered innovative, Louisiana’s TOPS program, which provides scholarships to more than 50,000 students every year, now benefits the wealthy more than it helps those in need and bears only a passing resemblance to Patrick Taylor’s original vision.

Thirty years before Bernie Sanders turned “free college” into a Democratic party platform, a conservative billionaire oil magnate saw free tuition as the cure to Louisiana’s inner-city ills.

Nearly two dozen states offer some form of free tuition today. But after three decades, Louisiana lawmakers aren’t sure their program is worth the annual $300 million the state spends on it. The accomplishments and shortcomings of Louisiana’s program may help other states get free tuition right – or at least a little more right.

Yes, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students helps send 50,000 kids to college every year. Louisiana’s post-secondary graduation rates have climbed. Fewer of Louisiana’s “best and brightest” leave the state to study. But the program is not accomplishing its original purpose: helping more kids, especially poor kids, get to college. In fact, only 29 percent of all Louisiana adults have bachelor’s degrees, the second worst rate in the country behind West Virginia. Louisiana still has the worst rate of black college graduates in the country.

Gov. Buddy Roemer signed the Taylor Plan into law on July 10, 1989.

Perhaps most striking: The scholarship may be helping to widen the socioeconomic gap in Louisiana. Today, nearly half the kids who use it come from families who earn $100,000 or more a year.

Lawmakers are meeting this fall to decide the program’s fate. After 30 years of setbacks and successes, is free tuition still the best way to promote college in a cash-strapped state?

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The stakes have never been higher for states to incentivize college completion. A high school graduate today cannot expect to earn middle class wages through blue collar work. Dozens of studies have found that people with bachelor’s degrees earn $800,000 more in lifetime income, on average, than people with only high school degrees. College graduates are less likely to smoke or be obese. They are more likely to vote and contribute to political campaigns.

Social scientists today spend considerable energy analyzing what leads poor students to graduate from college. But in 1988, Pat Taylor had no vetted theories to guide him. He had only his own Horatio Alger story.

He grew up in Beaumont, Texas, “a penniless, scared, scrawny kid.” A full-ride scholarship to Louisiana State University, where he earned a degree in petroleum engineering, changed his life. Taylor started his own oil company and eventually made the Forbes list of world’s richest men.

Patrick F. Taylor

By the late 1980s, though, few others in Louisiana were replicating his success. More than half of the state’s college students were enrolled in remedial courses. Only one in five students made it to graduation.

When Taylor visited an inner-city middle school in New Orleans, he asked how many kids planned to attend college. Only a few students raised their hands. Their parents couldn’t afford tuition, they told Taylor. Because of that, most of the 11- and 12-year-olds had already given up on school.

Taylor, who died in 2004, was dismayed, his widow said.

Phyllis Taylor

“These were children who had been written off, children who had failed, at least once, many twice, and the system was not going to address their needs,” Phyllis Taylor told lawmakers this fall.

Taylor believed money would inspire the students to work harder. He told the kids if they earned a B average, he would pay for their college. To help them achieve that benchmark, he created a college preparatory program at their high school. He brought in a naval commander to lead a summer program that was part boot-camp, part academic training.

Nearly all of those 183 kids graduated from high school, Phyllis Taylor testified in September, and many went on to graduate college.

Louisiana soon expanded the program. Because Taylor had envisioned it as a scholarship for poor kids, lawmakers initially limited it to children from families who earned $25,000 a year or less.

Then, nearly a decade later, Louisiana removed the income cap. Any student, theoretically, could earn a free ride.

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After 60 Minutes broadcast a special documenting Taylor’s success, other states rushed to replicate his effort. Today, nearly half of the country offers students some form of free tuition. In many of those states, though, most of the students who qualify bear little resemblance to the inner-city class that first inspired Taylor.

In Oregon, where legislators earmarked $10 million for free community college tuition last year, education leaders acknowledged that most of the money will go to students from middle-class families with incomes above $60,000, not to those with the greatest financial need.

In the Oregon program’s inaugural year, enrollment at rural community colleges dropped. Not a single campus reported an increase in racial diversity. And Portland Community College, the state’s largest system, reported a decrease in African-American enrollment.

Researchers also have found that the Georgia Hope Scholarship, which helps students who earn at least a 3.0 grade point average pay for college tuition, has widened the socioeconomic gap between students as a greater number of upper- and middle-class students take advantage of the program.

The gaps in Louisiana are especially stark. Black students make up 44 percent of the state’s elementary, middle and high school classes. But only 17 percent of the students who won the scholarship last year were black. Nearly 70 percent were white.

Nationwide, researchers have found the gaps in enrollment between high- and low-income students is higher now than it was for those born in the 1960s.

What went wrong? How did programs intended to level the economic playing field between students exacerbate the problem?

“There’s more than one barrier,” said Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “There is pretty strong evidence that financial constraints are a part of it. If you can relax those constraints, more people do go to college. But money is not a complete magic bullet.”

Researchers have found several disconnects. First, free tuition doesn’t mean what it did in Taylor’s day. Student fees, textbook and transportation costs have all risen.

Dr. Sujuan Boutte, the executive director for Louisiana’s office of student financial assistance broke it down for lawmakers in September. A student attending Louisiana State University can earn $7,462 a year from TOPS, she said.

Once that students pays the $10,814 tuition, though, “you’re already in the hole,” Boutte said. Add in the cost of books, room and board, transportation and personal expenses, and that bill balloons to $32,174.

There are other government-funded scholarships, such as the Pell and Go grants, available for needy students, but those still cover the full tuition. The neediest students – the “po instead of poor, they can’t afford the o and the r to be poor,” Boutte said – can’t afford to attend.

Other researchers say money isn’t the only barrier for disadvantaged students. Just as often, a lack of information and know-how hinders their success.

Susan Dynarski, a professor of education and economics at the University of Michigan, has found that the more complex a financial aid program’s application is, the less likely it is to benefit poor students.

Most free tuition programs require students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a form that Dynarski has written is “longer and more complicated” than most families’ tax returns. The application, which asks 116 questions, deters some poor families from applying for federal aid.

“Parents in these families have typically not gone to college themselves, so cannot draw from their own experiences to help their children,” Dynarski wrote.

Money won’t fix that, but researchers have found solutions. In 2012, some poor families who visited a tax preparation site were randomly selected to receive help completing and submitting the FAFSA. The intervention took less than 10 minutes and cost less than $100 a family. Students who received the help were 8 percentage points more likely to attend college.

Even students who complete the application can get lost between high school and college, Scott-Clayton found, if the matriculation process is too overwhelming. Researchers call it “the summer melt.” After they graduate but before college starts, students are left on their own to fill out “voluminous institutional paperwork, sometimes exacerbated by a lack of regular Internet access,” Scott-Clayton found.

“As a result,” Scott-Clayton writes, “a surprisingly large share fail to transition successfully to college in the fall.”

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What, then, can well intentioned state lawmakers do? First, they might do as educators in Tennessee did, and create a simplified application process.

Students didn’t have to meet any financial or academic benchmarks to qualify for Knox Achieves, a precursor to the Tennessee Promise “free community college” program. All they had to do was sign up for a mentor. Throughout the students’ senior year, volunteer mentors talked to them about college. They helped them fill out financial aid forms and college applications. Over the summer, the mentors texted the students to keep them on track.

Researchers have found the program led to substantial gains in college enrollment. Students in the Knox Achieves pilot program were 29.6 percentage points more likely to go to a community college and 24.2 percentage points more likely to go to any college than matched peers who did not participate in the program.

State lawmakers facing budget cuts might note one crucial aspect of Tennessee’s program: Half of the students who enrolled didn’t actually use the state’s money. After the volunteer mentors helped students fill out financial aid applications, many found they qualified for a Pell Grant, a federal aid program that offers nearly $6,000 a year to students from poor families. The grant covered the cost of community college.

The program succeeded with those students, researchers found, because the promise of free college was made more manifest. The Pell Grant was always there for the taking, but students didn’t know how to access it. The volunteer mentors helped them navigate the path.

Lawmakers also might learn lessons from the City University of New York, where the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs led to “massive graduation improvements,” Scott-Clayton said. Within three years, the school nearly doubled its graduation rate from 22 to 40 percent.

The program covers tuition, but it also offers students a book voucher and a Metro card. It also offers extensive wraparound services that few other states do. Students in CUNY’s program attend 34 tutoring sessions and meet with advisers 38 times a year. Counselors help students find classes that fit students’ work schedules. Later, they help students transfer to four-year colleges or into the workforce.

Researchers have widely praised the program with one caveat: It’s relatively expensive.

Nearly every state has cut the amount it spends on higher education. None has done so more than Louisiana. Still, the state next year faces a $1.5 billion shortfall. Lawmakers aren’t sure they can make the program better or more equitable. They’re not even sure they can afford to keep it at all.

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The TOPS taskforce spent nearly two dozen hours this fall examining every facet of the program. Today, it bears only a passing resemblance to the scholarship Taylor first created. Students no longer attend summer school and boot camp. Still, the program costs $150 million more a year than it did three decades ago.

Something has to change, lawmakers say. Louisiana is broke, and the scholarship eats up a quarter of the state’s higher education allowance.

Last year, legislators tried cutting the program entirely. Families across the state protested. Lawmakers then tried raising the GPA or ACT requirements. Others proposed restricting the program to families who earn less the median income. Both efforts failed.

This fall, the president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System reminded the task force that though 200,000 students attend college in Louisiana, only 50,000 benefit from the scholarship program.

“What do we do for the other 150,000?” Monty Sullivan asked the panel. No one answered.

The task force will make its recommendation to the state legislature in February. But lawmakers say they worry the biggest question remains unanswered. What, ultimately, is the scholarship’s purpose?

Is it to help those who wouldn’t attend college otherwise? Or is it to keep the best and brightest in Louisiana?

Patrick Taylor meets with a group of Louisiana high school students.

Phyllis Taylor said her husband would want both to be true. The only way to accomplish that, she told the taskforce, is to offer mentoring and help with the application. That may come with a pricetag, she allowed.

“But it also comes with benefits,” she said. “If Louisiana is to make gains in literacy, poverty, economic development, there is only one avenue. And that avenue is the education of our population.”

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Publisher’s Note: The Bayou Brief is proud to introduce the journalist Casey Parks, a native of West Monroe and a graduate of Alexandria Senior High School who launched her career as youth correspondent for The Town Talk sixteen years ago.

Since then, Casey has worked and written for The Jackson Free Press, serving as its associate editor, The New York Times, chronicling her experiences traveling across Africa with Nicholas Kristof, and, for the past eleven years, as a reporter for The Oregonian, earning regional and national awards for her writing.

Casey is currently enrolled in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism’s Masters of Arts program, where her scholarship is focused on the effects of poverty, education, and mass incarceration in Louisiana. She can be contacted at casey@bayoubrief.com.   

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