Free college tuition was one rally cry of the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign. It drew accusations from the Vermont Senator’s critics that he’s a radical, and ardent backing from his supporters. But in Florida, at a recent Democrat Gubernatorial candidate forum, the idea had majority candidate support.
Could the free tuition concept be going mainstream?
Three of four candidates vying for the Governor’s mansion want Florida’s students to go to school without compiling debt. They just have to be willing to work in the state following graduation.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum wants to use his plan to remedy state shortages in fields like nursing and teaching.
“What we proposed is a one for one - if you want to go into the teaching environment in this state, you’ve got an interest in doing so but you are drowning under debt? We will pay your debt, if you give us four years teaching in the state of Florida,” Gillum said.
Orlando Businessman Chris King wants free tuition to community college and trade schools. He calls his vision for a plan “one of the biggest ideas” that stands to change the State.
“Florida leads the nation in locking people up, and we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars that I believe could be used toward public education and free community college and trade school,” King said.
King has an idea for how he would fund the program. His plan involves decreasing Florida’s prison population by 50 percent. King says he would use what he figures would be the resulting $1 billion in savings.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine says he would do “everything in (his) power” to usher in a system that puts less strain on students.
“I believe if you are on Team Florida, and you are a Floridian, and you want to go to one of our colleges and your parents can’t afford it – and you will commit to working in our state after you graduate, you should go to college debt-free,” Levine told those in attendance at the forum.
Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham did not go all in on free tuition, but pledged her support to the college system.
The Dem candidates’ calls for re-thinking the system come at a time when adjunct faculty from colleges across the state are asking for reform. Some stakeholders say there are more part-time faculty than ever compared to those who are tenured.
Christian Schlaerth is an adjunct professor at three schools – public Miami-Dade College and private University of Miami and Barry University. He’s part of an organization called Faculty Forward, advocating for professors who are in the same boat he is.
“When an older faculty member retires, and this is at all three institutions, that it is more cost-effective to hire two or three part-time professors to take up that teaching load than it is to hire a full-time faculty member,” Schlaerth said.
Schlaerth received his PhD from University of Miami in 2014. He was surprised at how infertile Florida’s ground is for professors. He says about 80 percent of professors at Miami-Dade College are there on a contingent or adjunct basis.
“When I decided to go to graduate school for sociology and see it all the way through to a doctoral program – I did not expect that I would be just a contingent, part-time faculty member at three institutions,” Schlaerth said.
Schlaerth says it’s all an effort to cut costs. He adds the system has been squeezed by less-than-adequate funding by the Legislature:
“Because then you don’t have to pay for unemployment insurance for them, you don’t have to pay for retirement plans and you don’t have to cover their health insurance.”
He’s even picked up another job on the side.
“Now, to supplement my formerly supplemental income, I tend bar part-time on the side,” Schlaerth said.
So, the idea of free tuition would surely benefit Schlaerth’s students. But how will it benefit those teaching them?
“If you have more students attending colleges and taking college courses – that means you’re going to need more faculty members. And so, that’s how it would end up benefitting the faculty overall as well as the adjunct faculty,” Schlaerth said. “We are paid per class as adjuncts, and that means for instance Miami-Dade College has to offer more courses.”
Schlaerth says if he were to vote right now, Andrew Gillum would be his first choice for governor.
The college climate has seen a push for the formation of unions at institutions like Hillsborough College, Broward College and University of South Florida.
Angela Edwards-Luckett is an adjunct professor of world religions at St. Petersburg College’s Tarpon Springs campus. She recently traveled to the Capitol with the Poor People’s Campaign to make her case.
“I’m here to say today that we need to all join together and get this union pushing. Because we deserve a living wage,” Edwards-Luckett said.
The Service Employees International Union, Faculty Forward’s parent organization, says about 54,000 adjunct and faculty on more than 60 campuses have unionized across the country.
Contact reporter Ryan Dailey at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @RT_Dailey