A group of local professionals were split on whether college tuition should be free during a Manatee Tiger Bay luncheon Thursday afternoon.
Student loan forgiveness and free college have become the hallmark campaign promises for a number of Democrat presidential candidates. A panel made up of college administrators, professors and a business owner discussed the feasibility of the proposal.
Both professors, former Florida House candidate Liv Coleman and New College professor Sarah Hernandez, agreed that improved access to a university education would significantly improve quality of life for all residents.
“It shouldn’t be controversial, however, or even ideological to argue for higher education. It’s a bipartisan or even nonpartisan movement that’s sweeping the country,” said Coleman, citing several states that have begun working toward free or affordable college initiatives.
“Education is the shaping of a human being, respecting and maturing our creative capacities, our artistic abilities and our emotional existence and well-being, as well as our adaptability to a changing world,” Hernandez added. “In the U.S., we have the ability to offer the kind of educational opportunities that are already available in other wealthy nations.”
Those opportunities, local college officials pointed out, aren’t always effective. Carol Probstfeld, president of the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, pointed to studies that show colleges in countries with free tuition have lower graduation rates and argued that having to pay for an education is a motivating factor.
“As human beings, we value what we invest. We take pride in what we earn, and this is what drives us to persevere,” said Probstfeld. “So, no, I’m not in favor of free higher education. Not because I don’t want to help students, but because I don’t want to hurt the students who need it the most.”
Local business owner Kevin Van Ostenbridge called the idea of free tuition a “socialist policy” and said he also felt that the “skin in the game” of paying and working for degree is what makes it so satisfying for millions of college graduates in the U.S.
“A person doesn’t value something that is free the way they value something that is earned,” Van Ostenbridge said. “Personally, I love the feeling I get when I work hard and diligently to achieve a goal and I finally get there. When you give something to someone, you cheat them of that emotion.”
Karen Holbrook, regional chancellor of the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, offered points for both sides of the argument. She noted that Founding Father John Adams broached the subject of sharing the cost of education as a society, but noted that higher education expenses go far beyond tuition.
“If you have free tuition, students also pay very high taxes for books and fees. Tuition doesn’t answer the entire question,” Holbrook said, listing off additional costs tacked on to classes, such as activity and service fees, campus fees, facility fees, transportation fees, athletic fees and more.
“Collectively, these amount to about $35 to $48 per credit hour that the student takes. Assuming the student takes 15 credits per semester, that’s about $527 extra in addition to the tuition they pay,” Holbrook continued.
While the guests at Tiger Bay didn’t come to a consensus across the board, the affordability of higher education is a pressing issue for at least one of Florida’s federal officials.
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott met with students, faculty and parents in Tampa on Thursday to discuss the rising costs of college classes, along with officials from Manatee Technical College, USF and Hillsborough Community College.
“I’m working to make sure every Florida student has access to a great and affordable education,” Scott said in a Thursday afternoon tweet.