July 28, 2014

Editor's Page

Someday, Soon?

Mark R. Howard | 12/1/2007

“President Robert M. Strozier of Florida State University this week told a Tampa audience that Florida now has ‘no really great universities,’ but he hoped some day we might. Among the reasons cited by Dr. Strozier is the fact that Florida spends only $8.73 per capita on its institutions of higher learning. In comparison — or, one should say, in contrast — Arizona spends $18.52, California $19.06, Michigan, $21.39. Money, of course, is not the only answer to greatness in universities. On the other hand ... a financially undernourished university cannot be expected to achieve greatness.”
— Editorial page, St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 13, 1958


Mark Howard
Executive Editor
In 1958, the state’s universities didn’t even charge tuition, only a $75-per-semester “student fee.” Fifty years later, the financial picture for Florida’s universities is a good deal more complicated. With a system-wide budget of about $3.3 billion, it’s tough to say the universities are starving, but higher-ed funding in Florida still involves too much scrounging and fighting for scraps in the state budget rather than the straightforward, three-squares kind of feeding the schools need to improve. Were Dr. Strozier alive today, he might be dismayed to find that his evaluation of the state’s higher-education system would be the same now as then. No great ones. Maybe someday.

While various pieces of higher education in Florida — the universities, the Florida Prepaid College Plan, research interests, etc. — have plenty of advocates, no real champion has emerged for the system as a whole. Gov. Charlie Crist’s aw-shucks-I-just-do-what-the-people-want management style means he probably won’t get out in front, but he appears to have left the door open for others: As he signed off on a 5% tuition increase recently, he indicated a more systematic approach to higher-education funding would be welcome, saying “piecemeal approaches” are unacceptable and asking for a “multiyear’’ plan.

Ideas for some kind of organized reform may be beginning to percolate. Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state’s 11 public universities, has been working on an initiative called Forward by Design, aiming both to create a plan for higher ed and a coalition of stakeholders to support it.

Meanwhile, FAU President Frank Brogan, who couples his experience as lieutenant governor for Jeb Bush with experience at every level of education in Florida, put together a set of proposals that he shared with Crist a few weeks ago. Among other ideas, Brogan believes the state should commit to a series of fixed annual tuition increases over five years. He suggests 5% a year but is less concerned with the precise percentage than with the commitment to steady increases. In Brogan’s scenario, the Legislature would give up producing its annual university budget request and focus on funding initiatives like medical education and major research that have statewide implications.

Brogan also believes the 11 public state universities need the discretion to charge “academic enhancement” fees of up to $500. This, of course, would provide one way to end-run the financial strictures created by the Prepaid College Plan. The prepaid plan may comfort parents financially, but it effectively locks universities into their present state of mediocrity. Increasing tuition just to the national median would provide the state’s universities with more than $700 million to hire professors and beef up academic programs, according to some figures.

The Legislature will eventually have to face the problem created by the Bright Futures program, which has ceased to provide merit-based financial aid and has become a middle-class entitlement program for people who ought to be paying more of their children’s educational costs. It’s outrageous that nearly 100% of UF’s students — most of whom come from families making more than $100,000 — get Bright Futures scholarships. Keeping Bright Futures funded, meanwhile, occupies an increasingly uncomfortable share of the state’s budget. The only solutions are either to kill it outright, which won’t happen, or to raise the eligibility standards so that every student can’t get it. Raising the standards too quickly, of course, will create political backlash from angry parents. Brogan proposes increasing the required SAT scores by 10 points a year over five years and the minimum GPA by .3 points a year for five years, restoring the program gradually to a real merit base.

Another problem any comprehensive approach must address is the relative lack of need-based aid for students who may not qualify, either now or later, for Bright Futures. Brogan suggests setting aside about a third of any annual
tuition increases and a third of any enhancement fees for need-based aid.
Along with those and other suggestions for creating more stable funding for the schools, Brogan thinks the state needs to phase in a commitment to full funding for enrollment growth, coupled with a measure to allow the schools to increase tuition exponentially if the Legislature failed to fund that enrollment growth. Brogan also believes the state needs to create performance measures to ensure that it receives a return on its investment in its universities.

Brogan’s ideas have several virtues: They address the whole knot of issues surrounding funding, but the solutions phase in incrementally, which means the political pain could be distributed evenly and slowly among the governor, the leadership of the Legislature, university presidents and the Board of Governors, all of whose support will be required. “Everybody has to commit to this or it won’t work,” he says.

Florida’s economic base is shifting into the 21st century. Within just a few years, new institutions like Scripps, Burnham, Torrey Pines and the Max Planck Institute will be generating both scientific and economic momentum that the state needs to be able to capitalize on. That will require first-rate graduates from first-rate universities, in a system geared to reward excellence rather than size. “It’s not a question of remaining open,” Brogan says. “It’s a question of staying relevant.”

Tags: Editor's column, Education

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