Make College Affordable, Not Free

Guest Correspondence

BY CAROL PROBSTFELD SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY OCT 19, 2019

Free college has become a hot button, politicized issue as candidates run for office on its promise and some states adopt policies to provide free tuition. The belief that free college leads to a more educated and informed society is a noble one, but I believe we have to ensure such a program helps the students most in need and ensures the outcome of a higher education remains worthwhile.

First, are we asking the right questions? Are we trying to enable students to attend college or should we really be working on keeping the cost of college affordable? Those are very different questions that have very different outcomes.

One of the driving factors for this topic is the student loan crisis, but we need to be clear about what is in student debt. The average student loan outstanding today according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is $24,301. That is less than what most college graduates will pay for the first car they buy after they graduate. I submit that is not too much to invest in one’s future.

As individuals we value what we invest in, we take pride in what we earn, and this is what drives us to persevere.

Tuition is only a small part of what comprises student debt. It is also the choices that students make—where they choose to go to school, how they live, their lifestyle choices. Those decisions have financial consequences. Focusing alone on tuition is not going to solve the student loan debt crisis.

What about quality outcomes in a free higher education environment? Florida currently spends $6.4 billion a year on the state’s higher education system, according to Florida Tax Watch. The estimate to replace tuition is about $10 billion in recurring funding each year. The portion of the state budget that goes toward higher education would increase from 7 percent to 18 percent. That is unlikely to happen in a state with so many competing funding needs. An under-funded education system leads to lower quality outcomes and less access to higher education.

Government takeovers have not historically led to innovation and change. What we need right now is change in our higher education system so that we are relevant and creating the talent that is demanded of us for the future.

What about students with financial need? This year, a student with high financial need can receive $6,195 in Pell Grants. Students do not have to pay back Pell Grants. Across the nation annual full-time tuition at most of our community colleges can be covered with $6,195. At the State College of Florida, full-time tuition with indexed fees is $3,100 a year, leaving those students with $3,100 a year for other expenses such as transportation and books.

The free tuition models across the nation mostly require students to exhaust all grant, loan or scholarship resources before the free assistance begins. They don’t favor the financially needy, in fact they favor the other end of the spectrum. So, who is it we are actually trying to help with a free college model?

I am not in favor of free higher education—not because I do not want to support students, but because I don’t want to hurt the students that need our help the most.

Dr. Carol F. Probstfeld is president of State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota.

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