TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott went to college with one goal: make money.
He didn’t join a fraternity or become active in student government. He took only the classes he needed for his degree and not a credit more.
Married when he attended community college, he paid for a bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City with help from the G.I. Bill. And he worked full time in a donut shop he purchased with a friend.
The boy who grew up wanting to be rich knew from the start he wanted to become an attorney.
For Scott, college was a means to an end. Now he wants Florida colleges and universities to have the same razor-sharp focus — rein in tuition costs and create cheaper degrees that can get graduates jobs.
It’s an approach to higher education that has put Scott at odds with educators who argue dollars and cents aren’t the only factors determining the worth of a degree.
But Scott is convinced his ideas are best for the bottom lines of both the state and students.
And he’s got his personal history to prove it.
Cost is cornerstone
As a kid, Scott’s family didn’t have much. He vowed to become an adult who didn’t have to worry about money.
Becoming a lawyer, however, meant earning degrees his family could not afford. So he figured out a way to pay for it himself.
“I think junior college cost $200 a semester and the university cost $255 a semester. ... I could work 40 hours a week and be able to pay for my school,” said Scott, 60.
He spent a couple of years in the Navy as a radar technician, using his spare time to pass correspondence courses that earned credit toward an associate’s degree. That military experience made him eligible for financial aid through the G.I. Bill.
He returned home and attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1975. But he also worked full time running a donut shop and set aside money that, along with his federal financial aid, paid for a law degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
As governor, cost is now the cornerstone of Scott’s higher education policy. He worries that tuition increases are putting college out of reach for working-class families like his.
“My wife and I put ourselves through college. We would not have been able to do it with tuition as high as it is today,” Scott said in a recent weekly radio address. “We must make our colleges more affordable for Florida families.”
He called on universities to halt tuition increases and vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed top-tier schools like the University of Florida and Florida State University to charge whatever they wanted in tuition.
More recently, state colleges have lined up to meet Scott’s challenge to create bachelor’s programs that cost $10,000 or less.
Universities have told Scott they are willing to hold the line on tuition, but only if the state agrees to contribute additional funding.
“I actually believe what Gov. Scott is saying about keeping tuition low is great,” said FSU President Eric Barron. “But that means then that the state has to fund the universities if we’re going to maintain the quality that the citizens in the state of Florida deserve.”
Pushing ‘practical’ degrees
But it’s not just the cost of degrees.
The governor has long been a supporter of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — because he knows that many of the state’s fastest growing industries fall in one of these categories.
He argued last year that lawmakers should put more money into these fields, even if it means less for liberal arts and social sciences.
“How many more jobs you think there is for anthropology in this state?” Scott told a group of business leaders last year. “You want to use your tax dollars to educate more people that can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”
To him, practical degrees in business and law were his ticket to joining a top firm and eventually becoming a hospital executive. Students should have a game plan before they step foot on campus, he said.
“Very few people have the financial wherewithal to say, ‘I’m going to go take four years and I’m going to learn about something that I know will have no impact on my ability to make money,’ ” Scott said.
The governor believes the state has done students a disservice by not providing clear answers on their employment prospects and what kind of money they can make with certain degrees. He is pushing colleges to collect that data and share it so they can be held accountable for outcomes.
He said students will still be able to make their own choices, based on their interests and strengths. But they will at least know what they are getting themselves into, especially if they are taking out student loans to pay for that degree.
“If you get a degree in an area where there’s no job opportunities, just think about what will happen to you,” Scott said. “You spent four years of your time, you probably today have a lot of debt and you don’t have a job. That’s not what you want when you got out.”
But social sciences and liberal arts remain popular not only among students but educators, who said job prospects in these fields can be just as strong as any STEM major.
Paul Dosal, University of South Florida’s vice provost for student success, received degrees in history and worked in the field for many years. He knows English majors who became teachers and others who became stock brokers. Studying culture and politics and society gives students an understanding of the world that makes them better citizens and employees, he said.
“We’re not just preparing students for a particular vocation,” Dosal said. “Moreover, there’s enough evidence out there to show the value of pursuing a degree in history or English.”
Swaying public opinion
Access, cost and quality. What Florida and the entire nation are figuring out is how to strike a balance between the three.
Scott has said many times that he only wanted to start the dialogue on how colleges and universities can improve and make the most of their state dollars while providing the best benefit for students.
“I didn’t think there was enough conversation about our students getting jobs when they walk out the door,” he said.
But even if the Legislature and various governing boards controlling schools sign on, Scott must persuade the public. That could be tough. Last week’s Quinnipiac University poll concluded that 45 percent of Floridians don’t approve of the job Scott’s doing compared to 36 percent who do. Over half of respondents said he doesn’t deserve a second term in office.
When the pollsters asked about specific education policies, 73 percent of responders agreed with Scott in opposing giving top schools the flexibility to raise tuition. But they also said, by a 2-to-1 margin, that the state should not charge students less for enrolling in STEM.
“I believe if you ask the parents they would tell you that they paid the taxes for public higher education and their children should be able to study what their children want to study,” Barron said.
But the state could still do more to promote target areas, he said, such as offering scholarships for students pursuing certain degrees.
State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan said Scott has shown a passion for higher education and courage in proposing ideas that may not be popular across the board.
“If people will just take a breath and recognize what he is asking for, what he is demanding,” Brogan said, “he is demanding the same shot he got, and the same shot I got, and that we never close the door to that shot to the students or potential students of the state of Florida.”
Contact Tia Mitchell at email@example.com or 850-224-7263.