In 2010, USA Today reported that roughly 30 percent of freshmen entering college in our country are first-generation college students - or the first in their family to attend college. Twenty-four percent of college freshmen are first generation and low income. Nationally, a shocking 89 percent of low-income first generation college students leave school within six years without a degree. These students leave school for a variety of reasons - but financial need is at the top of the list. Raising tuition at our colleges and universities has certainly contributed to the problem.
At a young age I planned to attend college even though no one else in my family ever had. My dad has always worked very hard. Even today-at age 73 - he gets up at 5 a.m. every day and drives a truck for a living. He pushed me to make good grades because he knew education is the great equalizer in our society. While I always knew I was going to college - there were some things I didn't know like how much it would cost - or that you actually had to be accepted to a college before attending.
I always understood that I would have to pay my own way through college which meant I would either have to save enough money to do so - or would have to work while in school. I did both. Work was nothing new to me. I was 10 years old the first time I was paid to work for someone else. I made a whopping 50 cents to mow lawns. I later had a paper route, scooped ice cream at an ice cream shop, cleaned a movie theater every day, and worked at a record warehouse - all before I was 15.
While growing up in Cape Coral and attending North Fort Myers High School I worked as a photographer for a small newspaper, worked in the Sears customer service department, was a janitor for a dry cleaner's and prepared tax returns for a local accountant.
While attending Edison State College, I dug ditches for a plumber for $20 a day and spent many nights loading and unloading tractor trailers, while attending class in the day. Driving home at dawn every morning covered in dirt and sweat is something I will never forget. While attending FSU I worked nights entering applications on a computer for an insurance company.
I know a lot of people who had to work and pay their own way to attend college. To a person - they all believe the experience made them truly appreciate the value of a college education and it motivated them to be successful in life.
Fortunately, when we went to school it was actually possible to pay for school. Unfortunately, today's first generation college students in Florida may no longer have the ability to pay their way through college. Why? Because the average cost to attend college at a public university in our state is now in excess of $20,000 per year. At a private school the costs can be double.
Some have argued that our colleges and universities are too inexpensive, particularly when compared to schools around the country. Shouldn't our goal be to have the very best colleges and universities in America for the lowest possible tuition? This is particularly true if we want to provide access to higher education to first generation college students. What good is a top notch university system if 30 percent of your population can't afford to attend?
Properly funding our colleges and universities is extremely important. Our higher education system is critical to the economic success of our state. However, for the immediate future we should avoid further increases in tuition if at all possible. Otherwise, obtaining a college education will be unattainable for many who simply won't be able to afford it. That will result in fewer educated workers in our economy and will trap future generations of low income students in the cycle of poverty.
-Jeff Kottkamp was Florida's 17th Lieutenant Governor and also served three terms in the Florida House of Representatives. He currently practices law in Tallahassee.