Julio Fuentes: Presidential candidates must address challenges of working college students

When it’s time to select our country’s next leader, our nation looks to Florida.

In the months ahead, presidential candidates will visit veterans in Pensacola and seniors in Boca Raton. Candidates will reveal their plans for job growth and take positions on foreign policy.

However, a substantive policy discussion must not be missed. For our country to confront the challenges of tomorrow, we must demand solutions for the systemic problems today’s student faces in higher education. Specifically, we must address the overwhelming number of minority students who, while in school, raise families and work an average of 20 hours per week.

I know we’ve all been exposed to the candidate debates and heard a range of solutions for the staggering cost of college education. While that is a very real barrier, there are additional obstacles for some college students.

Consider our state’s university system graduation rate. Florida ranks in the top 10 nationally in graduation rates, with 64.4 percent graduating in six years, and 38.7 percent graduating in four years.

Over 35 percent of our students seeking a degree don’t make it. When you break those numbers down by ethnicity and race, Hispanic and African-American students are at a far greater risk of not completing college.

Of course, college access and completion are dramatically affected by costs, and we applaud each presidential candidate who is taking the time to address the cost of college.

But clearly, we need a macro view of today’s college students. We must understand that today’s students are also part-time workers. More than 58 percent of students in universities and colleges work part time; in Florida it’s 63 percent. Some of those students are raising children, are financially independent, and are working more than 35 hours a week.

Florida is taking steps to help students to graduate. The state is using comprehensive degree acceleration strategies such as dual enrollment, early admission, credit by examination, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate credit. Such strategies are made possible through a common course-numbering system that allows credits from two-year colleges to be easily transferred to four-year institutions.

But Florida needs the federal government’s help, and that’s where the presidential candidates come in. I urge them to take a deeper dive and speak with students and administrators alike to see what barriers students encounter beyond the sheer cost.

If you ask the young people we work with at the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, they often cite the aid application process, which remains inflexible for part-time and on/off semester credits.

They’ll also tell you how institutions are not incentivized to develop programs that cater to students who are parents, or those who work a lot of hours. We need strategies that will help these students so they can take classes, study and earn a living all at the same time.

We have to do this because the stakes are high. For the United States to lead the world again in the proportion of citizens with a college education, we must first see every student graduate.

That includes the part-timers and older students. If we don’t address this issue, then the result is a skills gap. Incomes shrink. And America falls further behind.

Above all, if we don’t assist students in completing college, they forfeit more than $1 million in career earnings. That’s $1 million less going into our communities and economy.

Presidential candidates need to speak to students and parents about how they can push the federal government to respond to the problem of college completion.

• • •

Julio Fuentes is President/CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Phil Ammann

Phil Ammann is a Tampa Bay-area journalist, editor and writer. With more than three decades of writing, editing, reporting and management experience, Phil produced content for both print and online, in addition to founding several specialty websites, including HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government, entertainment reviews, marketing and an advice column. Phil has served as editor and production manager for Extensive Enterprises Media since 2013 and lives in Tampa with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul. He can be reached on Twitter @PhilAmmann or at [email protected].



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