Local college administrators say students need 'skin in the game.'

MANATEE COUNTY — Manatee Tiger Bay Club members and their guests heard a mix of opinions Thursday from panelists who disagree about whether taxpayers should cover tuition costs for college students, at least at public institutions.

Liv Coleman, associate professor of political science and international studies at the University of Tampa, advocated for “expanding access to higher education,” at least for two-year degrees, when she ran for a Florida House seat in 2018.

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Her stance can be perceived as “against the financial interest and bottom line of my employer,” a private college, Coleman said. Because of tenure, she stressed, she can freely express her opinion.

Coleman argued that enabling more people to have an education beyond high school will enable them to get higher-paying jobs and strengthen the workforce.

The subsidies would apply only if all other financial resources, such as federal grants, are exhausted, she noted.

Sarah Hernandez, associate professor of sociology and Caribbean and Latin American studies at New College of Florida, said free public education is for “a social good and not just an individual gain.”

“Many students drop out of college for financial reasons,” Hernandez said.

She said she would rather be taxed to pay for higher education than take on personal debt.

Karen Holbrook, regional chancellor of the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, stressed that tuition is only part of the total costs of a college education. Various fees, aside from tuition, can come to $527 per semester for a full-time student, plus possibly living and transportation expenses, she noted.

“Tuition doesn’t answer the entire question,” Holbrook said.

If a student’s higher education costs are entirely subsidized, that person has no “skin in the game,” she noted.

Holbrook warned that free tuition at public schools could adversely affect small private colleges, which may not be able to compete.

“Are we asking the right question?” Carol Probstfeld, president of State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, asked the audience when she stepped to the podium.

Medicare, for example, “has not controlled the rising costs” of health care, she noted.

She agreed with Holbrook’s “skin in the game” comment, emphasizing that a student needs to make some personal investment in earning a degree.

“I’m not in favor of free higher education,” Probstfeld said. She agreed with Holbrook that tuition is not the only cost associated with college attendance.

Student loan debt is typically about $24,300, less than what that graduate is likely to pay for his or her “first car,” Probstfeld said. “That’s not too much to invest in your future.”

Kevin Van Ostenbridge, owner of Be Easy Tours, represented the view of a conservative taxpayer.

“I’m pro-learning,” Van Ostenbridge said. Yet his teachers and coaches emphasized to him that “if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

He raised the question of whether graduates who do not go into a career associated with the degree they earned should be required to refund taxpayers.

He noted that the federal government, through grants for low-income students and the G.I. bill, already assists citizens in affording a college education but that it should not cover every expense. “You have to be willing to invest in yourself.”

Free tuition will replace that commitment “with a feeling of entitlement,” Van Ostenbridge said. “No doubt about it. This is a socialist policy.”