TAMPA — College is expensive. Rick Scott wants to keep his job.
Those two facts shared the same orbit Wednesday at a Tampa high school, where the governor chatted with teens about college plans while blaming his opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, for the debt they will incur.
"One thing that I'm trying to do now is undo the increases that were caused by this last administration," said Scott, seated in a circle with five teens and six parents in Jefferson High School's media center.
Outside the ring of chairs, a bank of television cameras paid attention. On the other side of a bookcase, school staffers listened in. Before anyone uttered the first word, the event was already under scrutiny.
School Board member April Griffin put out a statement a few hours earlier questioning whether students were being used as campaign props.
As it turned out, the students — Linda Bamba, 17, Pedro Hernandez, 17, Aarian Moore, 16, Julisa Inoa, 16, and Daniel Erickson, 16 — did all actually seem to agree that college is expensive.
"It gives me a headache," Bamba said, when the governor asked if she has considered how much she will need to borrow.
Scott finished college and law school without debt, he said, and his first semester of community college cost just $200.
This news didn't seem to make anyone feel better.
Moore, considering an aerospace technology career, said the message at home is that if he works hard enough, he will get a scholarship.
Inoa, who wants to be an FBI agent, isn't sure how she'll pay for college. She sees her mother juggle $40,000 in deferred college loans of her own while trying to support two teens.
"I'm not going to live the rest of my life having to pay back school loans and having to live paycheck by paycheck," the daughter said.
Scott asked the students if they had given thought to whether their desired fields of study will lead to jobs that pay enough for them to be able to repay loans.
"You're in 11th grade and you want to study accounting?" he asked Hernandez. "I took 18 hours of accounting. You can get a job for sure."
Bamba dreams of broadcast journalism. But she thinks accounting or banking might be more sensible.
"I feel like I have to push away what I really wanted to do — what I have a passion for — and just settle for what can pay off my loans," she told Scott.
The governor didn't try to dissuade her.
He asked if any of them had friends who couldn't go to college because of tuition increases. He said Florida Prepaid College Plans now cost families more than $350 a month, even spread out over an entire childhood. He asked if they thought 15 percent tuition increases — which occurred under Crist — were realistic.
No one leaped at the chance to endorse expensive tuition.
After the gathering, Scott took a few questions from reporters but did not answer them directly.
For instance, one reporter asked about School Board member Griffin's concern. Was Scott using students as props?
"It's exciting to be here," he said. "I'm here to hear their stories. Tuition is too high. Charlie Crist raised tuition."
Another reporter asked if the event was a campaign event, which would violate School Board policy.
"Gosh," Scott replied, "what we're doing is listening to students, listening to parents about the cost of tuition."
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.