Florida is a top state for best college value

School’s out for summer, but education is generating plenty of public discussion.

College costs are escalating, family incomes are barely rising, students nationally have run up $1 trillion in loans, many do not complete their degrees and those who do often have trouble finding good jobs.

People are beginning to ask the question: Is college worth it? Does it make sense to give up four years of earnings, borrow an average of $30,000 in student debt and potentially end up in a job that does not require a college education?

The answer is that college is not for everyone. We still need skilled technical workers. Plumbers, dental hygienists, computer technicians, medical assistants, machine operators and many others without a four-year college degree can make a good living.

For those who are academically inclined, however, Florida offers some of the best buys in higher education anywhere in America. The University of Florida, for example, is the fourth lowest of any state flagship university in the U.S. for tuition and fees, and the lowest of any large state.

Florida is fortunate to have nationally-ranked institution of higher learning within its state university system and among its nonprofit independent colleges and universities.

But $6,000 for instate tuition at state schools – after adding books, transportation and room and board – can quickly add up to $20,000 a year. Commuter students living at home can expect to spend about $11,000 a year. At independent colleges, the cost can be much higher.

Laying out $40,000 to $80,000 or more for a four-year college education is beyond the reach of many Florida students. Financial aid is available, but that can reduce not eliminate the burden for most students.

Also, the days when students could work their way through college are long gone. College tuition has risen nationally at two or three times as fast as inflation. Students lucky enough to find a summer job might earn about $3,000, only a fraction of the cost of college tuition.

Consequently, colleges and universities across the country, and Florida is no exception, face a growing crisis where fewer students can afford college.

Also, too many students are dropping out without earning a degree, they might not land a well-paying job and they are defaulting on their huge student loans.

As a result, colleges and universities are beginning to rethink their missions and their methods. They are examining how to hold down costs and make tuition more affordable. They are looking at ways to attract and retain more lower-income students. They are tracking how many students find jobs after graduation and how much they earn.

In this tight economic situation, some smaller colleges may not survive. They may not be able to attract enough students who can afford the cost of college.

The centuries-old college lecture format may have to change and more classes may become computer-based instruction. Many courses already are available online for students to access at home.

The four-year model for a college education might be shortened, giving students less time on campus but quicker access to jobs and careers.

Especially, colleges are being pressured to examine their graduation rates. The Education Trust based in Washington, DC, just reported that less than two-thirds of students nationally who start full time at a four-year college earn a degree within six years. The Florida State University System graduation rate is about 60 to 70 percent.

The trust credits Florida State University as one school having made strides in graduating more of its students, especially low-income students.

Parents and students thinking about higher education – at state schools, independent colleges and for profit institutions – should ask questions, not just about college costs, but also about graduation rates and student success in finding jobs after graduation.

Colleges and universities have a challenging time ahead. But Florida seems to be in a better position than some other states to provide higher education to more students at an affordable cost.

Joseph Santangelo is a former reporter for the Bergen Record in New Jersey. He also has written for magazines in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

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