Here’s how to help more Florida college students to graduate | Editorial
The state has a vested interest in getting college students over the finish line.
Tansheka Riggens, a student at St. Petersburg College, meets in person for the first time with her completion coach, Matt Smith, on Nov. 20 in St. Petersburg.
Tansheka Riggens, a student at St. Petersburg College, meets in person for the first time with her completion coach, Matt Smith, on Nov. 20 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 30, 2023

College may not be for everybody, but those who start deserve a fighting chance to finish. Yet for many Floridians, adult commitments get in the way. That’s why a program in Tampa Bay that helps students complete their journey should be modeled and expanded statewide.

Tansheka Riggens first enrolled at St. Petersburg College in 2003. Her dreams of becoming a nurse stalled over two decades as she failed or withdrew from dozens of courses and racked up nearly $70,000 in student debt.

But every few months for the past five years, Matt Smith, an education coach from the nonprofit Complete Tampa Bay, would email Riggens: “Just checking in,” he would write. Or, more directly: “Are you having trouble figuring out how to juggle school, work and family life?” Riggens — busy with two jobs, kids and an elderly father — would usually trash the emails and wonder: “Doesn’t he get that I can’t do this?”

But the persistency is paying off. The 39-year-old is just one final exam away from an associate degree and a step closer to qualifying as a nurse, as the Tampa Bay Times’ Ian Hodgson reported last week. Riggens told the Times she would have given up without Smith’s attention and encouragement. And Riggens plans to keep in touch as she continues her nursing studies.

Riggens is not alone, figuratively or literally. She’s one of roughly 3 million Floridians who have attended college but never earned a degree or certificate. Often referred to as “noncompleters,” they make up roughly 18% of the state’s population age 25 and over, according to the U.S. Census. Complete Tampa Bay launched in 2021 to help this region’s 350,000 noncompleters get back on track toward earning their degrees.

While students leave school for a variety of reasons, many are sidelined by ordinary happenstance in life, from financial hardship to work and family obligations, according to a 2019 Florida Department of Education survey. Roughly two-thirds of Florida community college students fail to graduate within eight years, according to federal data. Research on Minnesota and Texas students suggests that noncompleters earn little more than those with only a high school diploma.

Those who leave without degrees not only foreclose more lucrative job opportunities, many are saddled with student debt. Without the higher earnings to pay off loans, 18% of noncompleters who attended one of Florida’s public colleges defaulted on their student debt within four years of leaving school — triple the rate of graduates from the same schools, according to a Times analysis of national education statistics. The financial loss for students often only a course or two away can drag down household incomes for their entire lives.

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The state has an enormous interest in helping these Floridians maximize their earning potential. Yet Complete Tampa Bay is the only program in the state dedicated solely to helping students return to college. Florida’s Complete Florida Plus Program provided scholarships and coaching statewide until Gov. Ron DeSantis struck the $30 million initiative from the budget in 2020.

As Riggens’ experience shows, this individualized outreach may be time-consuming, but follow-up is key to helping students overcome their specific hurdles. The vast expansion of online learning makes it more manageable than ever for students to cross the finish line. Expanding this program statewide would strengthen Florida families and the state’s talent pool.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.