Is a $10,000 college degree in Florida practical?
Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 6:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 6:11 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Rick Scott's call for state colleges to offer a $10,000 degree has reignited the debate over the cost of higher education in Florida.
In announcing his plan at St. Petersburg College this week, Scott said students should be able to "go to school and not end up with debt." His plan, modeled after a Texas program, would cut the cost of a bachelor's degree at one of Florida's 28 state colleges by about 25 percent.
Supporters say the plan would make college degrees more affordable.
"The importance of access to affordable higher education cannot be overstated," said Florida Board of Education member Sally Bradshaw, noting the state colleges offer a cheaper alternative to the cost of the state's 12 state universities and are often more convenient for students.
But critics say the plan is unrealistic, noting Scott is pushing for a lower-cost education program in a higher education system that has faced major cutbacks in recent years, including a $300 million cut to state universities this year. The Democrats claimed Scott is turning the state college system into "the Walmart of education."
In a less partisan critique, Roberto Martinez, vice chairman of the state Board of Education, called it a "very bad idea."
"The '$10,000 bachelor's degree' is not a serious policy," he said in a letter to Scott. "It will be perceived as a gimmick pretending to be a policy used as a sound bite."
Martinez said Florida could offer more affordable college degrees to its students if it invested more money in the higher education system.
State support for higher education has fallen dramatically in the last five years, largely spurred by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Florida is part of a national trend, although data shows the decline to be more significant in the state than the national average.
State financial support in per-student funding in the higher education system dropped 22.9 percent per student from 2006 to 2011, according to a report from the State Higher Education Finance Executive Officers, a nonprofit group of education officials from around the country. It compares with a national decline of 12.5 percent during the same period.
From 2010 to 2011, state funding per-student funding in Florida dropped 6.5 percent, compared with a 3.7 percent drop in higher education funding nationally.
Florida, like other states, has tried to offset the decline in state funding with federal stimulus money and charging more for tuition.
But a report last year from the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, a liberal-leaning group, asserted that Florida's "record of disinvestment" in state universities had left state support in the 2011-12 budget year - before this year's cuts took effect - equivalent to state funding in 2002-03.
"Meanwhile, tuition for a full-time student has almost doubled since that time," the report said.
University tuition has increased in Florida in recent years, particularly since lawmakers agreed to let the 12 universities raise their rates on their own, up to 15 percent per year.
Nonetheless, Florida's tuition rates remain low compared to the nation, ranking 41st among the states this year at $6,232 - well below the national average of $8,655.
Earlier this year, the Legislature backed a bill to remove the tuition cap for Florida's top research schools - including the University of Florida and Florida State University - allowing those schools to raise tuition to a "market rate" comparable to other major public research universities around the nation.
But Scott vetoed the bill, citing "strong concerns for the debt burden on our students and the number of graduates struggling to find jobs within their fields of study."
An October survey from a group that monitors student debt showed that slightly more than half of Florida students who earned a bachelor's degree in 2011 graduated with debt, averaging $23,054.
Florida was among the middle of all states, ranking 33rd, in the survey from the Project on Student Debt at the Institute for College Access & Success.
Into the legislative arena
With the Legislature returning to Tallahassee next week to begin preparing for the 2013 annual session, the debate over higher education funding - including Scott's $10,000 degree plan - will move into the legislative arena where the new leaders are open to the idea of revamping the higher-education system.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said he wants "to lash higher education to the realities and opportunities of the economy."
Those comments dovetail with Scott's push for more science, math and technology degrees in the higher-education system.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he understands the governor's concern about the affordability of higher education.
"I think there are different ways to get there," Weatherford said, noting his emphasis of providing more online classes for colleges and universities.
But Weatherford, who like Gaetz supported the market-rate bill, said higher tuition "has to be a part of the conversation."
He said the state needs to better explain the cost of a higher-education degree compared to what students are paying for that education - pegging the cost of a university degree at $65,000 to $100,000. "Most people don't know that," he said.
"While we want to make sure it's affordable and accessible to everyone ... nothing in this world is free," Weatherford said. "We've got to find a balance there."