By Tarren Brangdon
For the Tampa Tribune
It’s never too early to start thinking about which college is right. Or whether college is the right path at all.
That’s what my wife and I tell our four kids. Our oldest, a 10th-grader, is wondering if college is the best option to achieve his entrepreneurial dreams. Our ninth-grade daughter wants low debt and a high income, although her interests change often. Our youngest — twin boys — seem blissfully unaware that college exists. But one of biggest decisions of their lives is closer than they think.
It’s also never too early for parents to think through college and non-college options. My wife and I will probably be on the hook for at least part of the bill. More importantly, we want to make sure our kids choose the best path for their respective careers. It’s been a few decades, but we remember how hard it was to figure out which college would give us the most opportunities and the least debt. Conversations with friends and family nationwide have made clear that it’s getting harder, not easier, to find affordable schools that fast-track success.
But not in Florida. Our state has built what may very well be the best higher education system in America. And a series of recent reforms is making things even better—for students and parents alike.
That’s the takeaway from a new study by the Foundation for Government Accountability, which I lead. We found that Florida students have the most affordable public college tuition in the nation. Moreover, we’re the only state that can say students are paying less now per enrollee than they were two decades ago. Given that college costs have been rapidly rising nationwide, that’s impressive. Every Floridian should be proud of our record.
What explains our state’s leadership? Commonsense policy. In 2014, then-Gov. Rick Scott eliminated automatic tuition increases at public colleges and universities, and nearly a decade later, our four-year state schools have among the lowest tuition in the country. The result is one of America’s lowest student debt burdens — and the lowest in the eastern two-thirds of the country.
These achievements are remarkable. And under Gov. Ron DeSantis, House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, Florida is raising the bar even higher.
The state recently rolled out a first-in-the-nation interactive tool to help students find the college and career that’s right for them. It’s called “MyFloridaFuture,” and it’s the result of legislation enacted last year. The tool lets students compare actual earnings from different degree programs, with the added benefit of seeing which public universities deliver the best results. It also shines a light on expected student loan debt, tracked across institutions and degrees.
MyFloridaFuture is a game-changer. It used to be all but impossible for students to discover this information. Now it’s available at the click of a button. My 10th-grade son has already used the tool and so have countless other students. Such transparency will likely lead to lower student loan debt and higher career earnings.
It may also lead students to choose a different path, such as vocational schools or apprenticeships or the military, if a particular degree doesn’t seem worth the debt. That’s good, since college isn’t the best path for everyone. Today, a 20-week coding bootcamp program graduate could be better positioned than someone with a four-year bachelor’s degree in computer science, which was my major.
Equally important, Gov. DeSantis is making higher education more affordable and aligning it with Florida’s economic needs. He recently enacted Speaker Sprowls’ first-in-the-nation “buy-one, get-one” program for students who enroll in critical science, technology, engineering, and mathematics classes. For each class they take, they get a similar course free. This smart policy encourages students to pursue degrees in the most cutting-edge fields, while simultaneously lowering tuition for families. That’s good for their future and that of our state.
It’s never too early to think about which — or whether — college is right for you or your kids. And thanks to Florida’s higher education leadership, it’s also never been easier. As the parent of four soon-to-be-college-age students, few things make me happier. It’s yet another reason to live, work, learn, and raise a family here.
Tarren Bragdon is president and CEO of the Foundation for Government Accountability, based in Naples.