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TWENTY-EIGHT years ago, in a forgotten corner of New Orleans, a rich oilman, Patrick Taylor, promised a class of 13-14-year-olds that he would pay their college tuition fees as long as they could keep a B average through high school. The idea caught on, and soon expanded to cover poor pupils across Louisiana.

Eventually the private funding was replaced with taxpayer dollars. Then, in the late 1990s, the means-testing was dropped too. Everyone could now get the scholarships, called Taylor Opportunity Programme for Scholars, or TOPS; and so a behemoth was born. Similar programmes, such as HOPE in Georgia, have sprung up in more than a dozen states, mostly in the South, to try to stanch the “brain drain” these states have historically suffered. Everywhere they have proved enormously popular—and expensive. In Louisiana, the cost has doubled in a decade; and TOPS has become the very definition of a middle-class entitlement.

Like many other states, Louisiana has coped with lean budgets in recent years in part by scaling back its funding of universities. Colleges have been allowed to make up the difference by raising tuition fees—thus…

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