Momentum growing for free college tuition in Florida — but will it happen?

By: - August 9, 2018 7:00 am
bus for free college

‏Adjuncts, students rallying on #FreeCollegeNow bus tour. Credit: @MaryKayHenry via Twitter

Last year, Florida state Rep. Shevrin Jones pushed for a free college tuition program statewide – an ambitious plan to cover tuition for low-income and middle-class students earning two and four-year degrees.

But within a few months, the proposal was overhauled and then lost steam, failing to get the Legislature’s approval. Jones, a Broward Democrat, isn’t giving up.

He said his first piece of legislation in 2019 is likely to be a bill for a free tuition program across Florida.

“We have to put something on the books — at least start the conversation,” Jones said.  “Free college tuition is going to happen.”

Momentum is growing in Florida and nationwide as heavy college debt looms for thousands of students. Tuition and other college fees are on the rise on college campuses, making higher education out of reach for many. Policy experts say creating free college programs may not be easy given politics, finances, and questions about how to carry them out.

But states from Tennessee to Oregon and New York have launched free tuition programs, propelled in part by politicians including former President Barack Obama and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. For younger voters and millennials, college debt – and the weight of crushing financial pressure – is a critical concern.

Florida has no statewide initiative yet, but a program is already happening at Florida State College at Jacksonville. Low-income students from Duval and Nassau counties can get two-year associate degrees there tuition-free. The college launched the “FSCJ Promise” program in 2017 and is headed into its second year, said college spokeswoman Jill Johnson.

“It was embraced by the whole community,” she said.

The public support is significant because one free tuition program can blossom into a statewide initiative – it happened in Tennessee. The now well-known “Tennessee Promise” program launched in 2015, growing from a local program in Knox County, said James Snider, Tennessee Promise program director.

Miami Dade College has an initiative similar to free tuition programs but it’s called an American Dream Scholarship.

Across Florida, college adjunct instructors, students and other supporters recently toured the state by bus, rallying for education reforms, including free college tuition.

Now that the governor’s race is in full swing, we checked in with candidates to gauge their support for free college tuition.  Here’s what we found out: Three of the five major Democrats running – Chris King, Philip Levine and Andrew Gillum – have shown support for a free college tuition program of some kind.

King: Backs legal marijuana in Florida, and would use revenue generated for free tuition.

From his campaign spokesman: “By legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana and reducing mass incarceration for nonviolent offenders by 50 percent within the decade, Chris would put a portion of the estimated $1 billion in savings and new revenues from his bold, progressive criminal justice plan toward a program that allows Floridians to attend community colleges and public trade schools without tuition or fees.”

Levine: Calls free tuition a “common sense idea,” with some strings attached. Here’s the statement he  provided to the Florida Phoenix:

“Providing students with a tuition-free program to attend public universities—if they pledge to work in our state after graduation—is a common-sense idea that will allow more children greater opportunities while helping to boost our state economy. No child should be saddled with a lifetime of debt, or denied an opportunity to attend a state school, solely because of their parent’s income.”

He added that students who don’t opt for college but pursue careers in skilled trades should also get tuition-free classes under certain circumstances.

Gillum: On his website, he says he would focus on “making college debt free,” and that high school graduates “should have access to training for a career or a college education that won’t leave them with crippling debt.”

The other two Democratic candidates – Gwen Graham and Jeff Greene – did not respond to inquiries about free college tuition from the Florida Phoenix. Republican candidates Ron DeSantis and Adam Putnam didn’t either.

When state Rep. Jones introduced his bill last fall in the Florida Legislature, it proposed  a “Sunshine Scholarship Program” that would cover tuition for both associate and bachelor’s degree programs at public community colleges and state colleges. But the state’s public four-year universities were not included in the bill.

Students would have been eligible if their family’s household income was $125,000 or less, which would capture not only low-income students but middle-class kids as well. Another twist: Only tuition would be covered, not the fees, books, and other college expenses that can quickly add up.

The bill included other requirements including eligible grade point averages and a mandate that students live and work in Florida for a certain time after graduating.

Jones said some Republicans were in favor of his bill, but the legislation didn’t pass, in part, because the Legislature was focused on school safety bills after the February shootings at South Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Jarad Fennell, a University of South Florida adjunct faculty member, was on the recent bus tour rallying for free college tuition and other initiatives when he saw Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, the state’s Agriculture Commissioner, and asked him about free college tuition.

“I asked him to pledge his support (for free college tuition) and he demurred,” Fennell said.“I told him that Tennessee had done this under a Republican governor and if they can, we can have something like a Florida Promise here,” Fennell said. “Would you promise to do this?”

Again, Fennell said, Putnam didn’t answer.

Organizations that track tuition-free college programs say all states have different requirements and some states have limited or pilot programs. Usually, the programs focus on free tuition at community colleges.

A study last year by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association showed that at least 16 states have statewide tuition-free programs of some kind: Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New York Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, Delaware and Nevada. Policy experts say that creating the programs can be challenging as well as costly.

Another report released last year, from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, outlined concerns and realities, such as the meaning of the very word “free.”

“Those ‘free college’ programs cover student tuition, but do not address the non-tuition costs of attending college, such as books, transportation, and living expenses,” the report said. “These non-tuition expenses are not inconsequential as they can often equal or exceed tuition.”

In other concerns, the report said tuition-free programs are often marketed “as a tool for access and equity,” but the free-college money doesn’t necessarily go to the lowest-income students for various reasons.

And some experts worry that offering free tuition at two-year colleges would siphon students and money away from four-year universities.

Rep. Jones said he thinks that some people might view free tuition as a “handout, ” but he points out that any time public dollars can get a student in the college door, it helps create a trained workforce that ultimately helps all Florida communities.

He prefers to call free tuition a “hand up.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.