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Would Free College End The Student Debt Crisis? Tampa Area University Leaders Divided

Dr. Carol Probstfeld speaks at a podium
Kerry Sheridan
Carol Probstfeld, president of the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, argued against free tuition, saying students need "skin in the game," and the average student's debt isn't that high.

Americans owe $1.5 trillion dollars in student debt. Some Democratic presidential candidates argue that free tuition is the answer. 

During a panel discussion at the Manatee Tiger Bay Club on Thursday, Liv Coleman, a professor at the University of Tampa, said Tennessee has made it work, under what’s called a “last dollar policy.” 

“What that means is money from the state in this case---it would be the state of Florida, doesn’t kick in until students use all available funds, including federal Pell Grants,” said Coleman.

Karen Holbrook, regional chancellor at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, said she’s in favor of keeping student costs down. But she isn’t sure free college is the answer. 

“But what is the graduation? What is the completion rate? It is very low. Because a lot of these students say it’s hard, I’m going to quit. I didn’t pay for it. Why should I?"

About 20 states have or are working toward free tuition programs, but such proposals have failed to gain traction in the Florida Legislature.

Carol Probstfeld, president of the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota said she’s against free college, in part, because individual student debt isn’t all that high.

“The average student loan outstanding today is $24,301 according to the Federal Reserve Bank. That is less than what most college graduates will pay for their first car. I submit to you that is not too much to invest in your future.”

Women at podium
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
Professors Liv Coleman and Sarah Hernandez, seated, are in favor of free college. Dr. Karen Holbrook, regional chancellor of USF Sarasota Manatee, is not sure.

Sarah Hernandez, associate professor of sociology and Caribbean and Latin American Studies at New College of Florida, said a small tax on stock, bonds and derivative trades could raise $2.4 trillion dollars toward free college. 

“Investing in the education of all people in our communities contributes to the overall well-being of our society. We recognize this for K-12. We should as well at the university level,” Hernandez said.

“In the U.S., we have the ability to offer the kinds of educational opportunities that are already available in other wealthy nations. The question is whether we really have the will, the commitment, to improve not only our personal and selfish selves but also the health of the society to which we belong and the well-being of all the people in our communities.”

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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