Op-Ed

Florida shows how to increase access to higher education

TNS

President Obama’s proposal last week that community college should be “free” for students with a 2.5 GPA or higher ignited a fierce debate among both Republicans and Democrats on the affordability of higher education.

In the coming weeks and months, the national discussion will continue. So I have a proposition for our lawmakers in Washington: Take a page from the book of Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature.

Since becoming governor, Scott — who grew up poor — has worked hand-in-hand together with the Florida Legislature to keep the cost of higher education low, encouraging community colleges to offer $10,000 degrees, capping tuition increases and applying new pressure on colleges and universities to eliminate duplicative programs and operate more efficiently. Furthermore, universities and colleges have a renewed focus on preparing students for the state workforce — yielding a higher return on investment for students, families and taxpayers.

As chair of the body that oversees the State University System of Florida, I spend a lot of time thinking about student access to higher education and deliberating opportunities for improvement. To understand the full picture, you must consider tuition, fees, financial aid and the burden to taxpayers.

Compared to the rest of the country, Florida’s public universities perform well. Consider the following:

▪ The State University System of Florida offers the sixth lowest tuition in the country (including Washington, D.C.) for in-state residents. Said differently, tuition in Florida is less expensive than 46 of country’s 51 university systems.

▪ When you factor in financial aid, such as Pell Grants and Bright Futures Scholarships, the average undergraduate student cost-per-degree is $8,205.

▪ Roughly 35 percent of undergraduate students in the State University System come from families with annual incomes of less than $40,000 per year.

▪ For every dollar of tuition paid in Florida, the state contributes $1.62.

▪ As a result of the governor’s commitment to keeping tuition low, the cost of an education under the Florida Prepaid Program plummeted, making it more affordable than ever to save for a child’s education. In the past year, the lump sum price of the 4-Year Florida University Plan for a newborn dropped to $35,000 from its current price of $54,000. Monthly payments for the same plan dropped to $250 from $350. Families that invested in the more expensive plans got refunds.

▪ Gov. Scott challenged Florida colleges and universities to offer $10,000 degree programs, and all 24 of the state’s baccalaureate-approved schools have taken him up on that challenge.

I don’t fault our president or anyone else for believing that higher education should be available to people willing to work hard. But as universities and colleges across the country grapple with the issue of affordability, I invite them to look at our policies in the Sunshine State. They’ll find we’ve already made great strides.

Mori Hosseini is chair of the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s 12 public universities.

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