In May and June, thousands of students walked across stages all over the state, clothed in caps with dangling tassels, robes and the pride of accomplishment. After years of study, these college students were handed a piece of paper telling the world they had a degree - and for nearly half of them, debt. While 51 percent of Florida’s students graduate debt free, the others are handed a diploma at their commencement ceremony and, on average, a bill for $11,500, according to the Florida State Board of Governors.
For years, parents have sat around kitchen tables calculating how much of their paychecks needs to go into a savings account for their children to go to college. Luckily, they’re already in good hands by being in Florida.
“The legislature does set our tuition rate,” explains Dr. Linda Howdyshell, provost and senior vice president of academics and student success at Broward College. “By them legislating a low tuition, that makes sure that it’s economical for students.”
According to data from The College Board, the Sunshine State is the fourth least expensive state to attend a state university in the entire country. The nationwide average per-year cost of tuition at a four-year, public school for in-state students is $9,410; in Florida, the average is $6,360. The least expensive state to go to school is Wyoming; the most expensive, New Hampshire. From 2015 to 2016, tuition went up 3 percent nationally. In Florida, it only increased .2 percent, also the fourth lowest. (However, the story can change when it comes to private institutions. At the University of Miami, the cost for a full-time undergraduate student is $22,800 for a single semester. Up in Gainesville, it costs only $6,310 for the entire school year at the University of Florida.)
In Florida, parents can take advantage of the Florida Prepaid program, a 529 college savings program that also helps them calculate what amount to save each month in order to send their child to a public university. Also, depending on students’ GPA and SAT or ACT scores, the state’s Bright Futures program will pay a percentage, if not all, of their tuition.
“I don’t worry about those students so much,” Howdyshell says. “The ones I worry about are the ones who don’t have parents who can save or even know about wanting to have their kids go to college. Maybe there’s not been anyone in the family who’s gone [to college], so the whole idea of going and to save for 16 years is just foreign to them.”
Florida Prepaid is a popular option for savings, especially since 2014 when the Florida legislature cut the tuition differential for universities designated "preeminent" by the state - currently just the University of Florida and Florida State University - and eliminated it for all others. A tuition differential is an extra fee added to a student's tuition that may be required by some degrees. Not only can Florida Prepaid go towards tuition costs, but also room and board, textbooks and other costs associated with college. Another option is a more flexible 529 Savings Program, which parents or guardians can start at any time in a child’s life and can be used at any university in the country.
However, tuition isn’t all that students have to pay for when they’re going to school. On top of that, there’s room and board, textbooks, student fees, and for some majors, equipment and laboratory fees. At the end of May, while students were graduating, Florida Gov. Rick Scott rolled out a brand new initiative - a challenge to colleges and universities across the Sunshine State to help its students graduate in four years and make it more affordable. “Florida’s students should have every opportunity to earn a degree without bearing the burden of excessive costs and fees,” Scott said in a release for the “Finish in Four, Save More” challenge.
According to the governor’s office, only 44 percent of undergraduate students complete their degrees in four years and most spend $17,000 on education and living expenses.
Scott asked schools to eliminate fees for online coursework (it can cost as much as $100 per class), make it easier to get credit for internships and AP coursework, and he called on the legislature to expand the state’s Bright Futures program.
“We don’t want our students graduating with mountains of debt,” he said.
For parents treading foreign waters, or students who are going it on their own, the most invaluable advice is to talk to advisers. Broward College hosts high school workshops and open houses to talk about savings and financial aid such as Pell Grants, as well as loans and scholarships that students can take advantage of. Also, students are encouraged to take a financial literacy workshop.
“It is a good time to go to school in that the federal loans are available and the new federal programs are fair, but you don’t want those federal loans controlling the rest of your life,” says Chad Van Horn, founding attorney at Van Horn Law Group in Fort Lauderdale.
The firm largely deals with clients who are trying to work their way out of debt and bankruptcy, and many come through the doors with too many zeros in the amount they owe loan companies. Van Horn says many of the clients weren’t familiar with what kind of loan they were signing up for - private versus federal loans. The first hint that you might be signing up for more than you bargained for is if the loan requires a cosigner - that means it’s a private loan, he said, which are “not as forgiving” as federal loans.
“They just keep capitalizing that interest,” he says. “If you take out a $10,000 to $15,000 loan in your first year of school, that might be $30,000 to $40,000 by the time you start repaying it. People don’t think about that - I know I didn’t.”
There are other ways that students can have their school paid for or get help from their loans, including joining the military for the GI Bill, participating in reimbursement programs with their job, or the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which waives one’s debt after 10 years should they have a government or nonprofit job. For many, a four-year degree might not even be beneficial to start with - some jobs don’t require it, and some employers would rather see graduates from technical schools. Broward College recognizes this and offers the most certificate programs in the entire state, 1,278. Hillsborough Community College comes in second with 735.
“I see (former students) after everything is messed up,” Van Horn says. “If someone had wrapped their arm around them and said, this is how it works … The start is always going to be you need to find somebody who has your best interest, that’s looking out for your best interest, who’s been through this.”
"I just graduated."
This summer, Clayton Gutzmore finally got to put on a cap and gown when he graduated from Florida International University. At 26, he’d been working part time at Publix while studying communications to pursue a career in journalism.
“In my household, you go to school, you go to college, you get a job, and you make your life from there,” he says about his motivation to go to college.
After graduating from high school in 2008, he attended Broward College (which was a community college at the time) for his associate’s degree. He admits he wasn’t the best student in high school, so going the community college route suited him before he entered a university setting. Then, he enrolled at FIU in 2012 to complete his degree. He didn’t know much about financial aid at the time, but with research and help from advisers, he was able to win two scholarships, apply for financial aid, and take out a few loans to pay for college.
“There are options out there; you just have to qualify for them,” he says, explaining that he would search for smaller scholarships that wouldn’t have as many applicants as the popular ones.
“Go to your adviser or go to the teacher you have a good relationship with,” he suggests.
“Then figure out precisely what you want to do so you can look for the scholarships that cater more to your interests or more to your abilities.”
Also, he was able to participate in a program where instead of being paid for student work, he could use the money towards his tuition.
In the end, he estimates he has about $20,000 in loans to pay off. Juggling work, school, and working at the school paper he says wasn’t so much about stress as it was about learning to work a schedule and staying focused on what he wanted: a degree. After eight years of hard work, he walked the stage at FIU and was handed his diploma.
“It was emotional. I was in tears,” he says. “It validates all my work.” ■
"I went back to college."
Anthony Alfano’s passion was always music, and after bouncing around jobs in four different fields, he decided to go back to school to finish his degree to become an elementary school music teacher.
Alfano had earned credits from County College of Morris in New Jersey, where he first got his start in studying music, and Broward College, where he finished out an associate degree in liberal arts. He and his wife, Lillian, discussed their future and decided he should go to school full time while she supported their family with her accounting job.
To pay for tuition and miscellaneous costs, he received Pell Grants, got help from family and took out loans. Meanwhile, he earned extra money playing gigs with his band and teaching private music lessons.
Tommy and Vivian Leonard
"We're saving for our kids to go to college."
Married for five years, Tommy and Vivian Leonard are parents to two little girls - Gabriella, 3, and Olivia, 1. Already, they’re begun saving for both of them to go to college.
“Considering that Vivian was able to get through college with no debt versus I got through college with massive debt based on the different pathways we took, it was definitely decided well before we even had kids that saving for college was important,” Tommy says.
When they researched plans to save for their first daughter, they found a 529 plan that worked for them. At the time, Florida Prepaid was projecting “the cost of college at an unrealistic rate,” Tommy says, so they decided on another 529 savings plan. When their second daughter was born, the rates were adjusted and they opened a Florida Prepaid account for her. Each month, they put away a sum for both girls, less than the cost of paying off a car. “It’s kind of laid out in a simple, kind of dummy-proof way,” he says. “If they don’t go to college or something, [the money is] transferrable among kids without losing any of the money that you paid.”
“I don’t lose too much sleep over it,” he says. “I know that in the future it’ll be fine, in the long run it’ll be OK.” ■