Alan Levine: Reduce student debt by lowering higher-ed tuition costs

student loan debt (Large)
Look to Florida as an example.

President Joe Biden appears poised to, at some level, attempt to “forgive” student debt. No doubt this issue will be debated passionately, and I welcome our nation’s political leaders to the discussion. If they want to better understand how to reduce student debt, they can look no further than to the conservative policies in Florida – policies resulting from our own conversation about student debt which began a decade ago – policies which have reduced the cost of higher education, reduced student debt and increased opportunity for Florida’s students to get a job, earn higher income and begin their lives unshackled by student debt.

Since 2017, Florida’s State University system has been the number one ranked university system in the nation – overtaking California, Michigan, New York and Massachusetts. That we achieved this success and maintained it is no accident.  

When Gov. Rick Scott took office, he inherited a university system in turmoil. A system which did not comprehend, much less, care about, the cost of higher education or whether students were being unfairly burdened with debt. In fact, tuition at Florida’s universities had increased a whopping 15% in the last year of Charlie Crist’s term as Governor – made worse by the fact it was the third year in a row of such increases. As if these cost increases weren’t bad enough, student fees increased, at some universities for five years in a row.  In 2007, then-Gov. Crist allowed “differential tuition” for Florida’s largest universities, followed by the rest in 2009. Tuition skyrocketed as state financial support for the universities decreased. The plan was to allow tuition to increase 15 percent per year until 2019, when tuition would reach the national average.

Rather than take the position that the “national average” was too high, Florida’s universities and the Crist administration’s approach was to race to higher costs without any thought as to how this would impact student debt.  

This was wrong. The result? The cost of prepaid went from $14,616 in 2006 to $45,367 in 2011.  The top award for Bright Futures went from $3,750 to $3,030. The scholarships, which had covered 75% – 100% of tuition and fees was changed in 2009 to cover a fixed amount, which left students then having to borrow money.

How did this terrible policy get changed?

Gov. Scott made clear to me and to his other appointments to the Florida Board of Governors that his goal was to reduce the cost of a degree, and to make sure our students graduated with the opportunity for meaningful employment with good salaries. Scott, and now, Gov. Ron DeSantis, continued to appoint people to the Board of Governors who share the philosophy that the cost of education must be affordable. The Florida Legislature decided that providing increased state support, in concert with our efforts to reduce the cost for a degree, would result in better access and more affordable education. Our partnership with the Legislature is a national model for accountability in higher education, and I applaud our legislative leaders who see the value in the policies we have implemented.

No, we were not going to pursue the same policies as California, Michigan, New York and Massachusetts – policies which were designed by the educational elite establishment to increase costs as much as permissible. Instead, we believed we could lower the cost of a degree, and free students from the debt other states were allowing.  

Our policies led to material savings for Florida’s families. In 2014, more than $200 million in prepaid tuition was refunded to 18,000 Florida families, and the cost of prepaid was reduced for about 22,000 families.  Annual average student debt decreased to $2,160 – a 27% decrease in the last five years, and 75% of Florida students require no loans at all.  When including financial aid, the total cost of a degree in Florida is $3,020 – down from $14,840 in 2015-16 – a massive 80% decrease in just five years.   

Not only did costs go down, relieving students of debt, but student achievement improved as well. The starting median wages for our graduates increased by almost 11% since 2015. Our four-year graduation rates improved from 45% to nearly 60% in just five years.  

If President Biden forgives student debt, the universities and colleges in high cost states throughout America which have fed fuel to the fire of higher costs with no accountability should be required to reimburse the American taxpayer. They are at fault for this. The accountability for runaway student debt lies at the feet of the higher education elite establishment and their allies in government who have never taken the slightest interest in access, cost and student success. Shame on them. I am proud of my colleagues on the Florida Board of Governors who have remained steadfast in their focus on student achievement and access, and I am grateful to the Florida Legislature, Sen. Scott, and Gov. DeSantis – all of whom understand that the purpose of a college degree is to enhance the student’s opportunities, and not drown them in student debt.

Welcome to the debate, Mr. President.  

Alan Levine is a member of the Florida Board of Governors, having first been appointed by Governor Rick Scott in 2013. Previously, he served as a member of the University of Florida Board of Trustees. He has also served as Chairman of Florida’s Higher Education Coordinating Council. Currently, Levine is Chair of Strategic Planning for the Board of Governors.

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One comment

  • The Truth

    May 1, 2022 at 12:46 pm

    Every limp D who thinks of voting for Crist over DeSantis should read this essay and understand that voting for Democrats is voting for corruption, hypocrisy and waste–and probably graft.

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