Discussion of how to improve Florida’s higher-ed system plays out between two poles. On one end of the spectrum is the belief that, given historically low funding levels, the best way to proceed is to create some kind of tiered system the way California and North Carolina did years ago: Identify a few schools you want to compete at the national research level and focus the rest on providing a good, basic undergraduate education.
The most recent version of this vision came in the Pappas Report, which argued for defined roles for the state’s universities. To maximize resources and access, the report recommends, some schools should give up their national research ambitions and focus more on undergraduate education. The report is very much in touch with certain fiscal and academic realities in Florida. Only the University of Florida, the report states, approaches the status of a national-class research institution, and “there is no indication, without a seismic change in state policy, that the resources will be available to support a substantial number of comprehensive research universities.
The problem with tiers is that political and economic conditions in Florida are hugely different from those in other states that created them years earlier. California, as Pappas acknowledges, started with a relatively clean slate when it created its system. At the time they structured their systems, neither California nor North Carolina had the kind of economically evolved, self-interested city-states that define Florida — and now preclude the kind of higher-ed systems those states developed. How can the state deny Orlando, with a booming population and a real 21st century economy, its aspirations to a first-rate research university at UCF?
At the other pole of the higher-ed dynamic is the belief that the state ought to basically butt out of governance, leaving the important decisions — tuition, programs, etc. — to each university and its local board of trustees. Unleash the schools, this approach argues, and let the presidents be entrepreneurs rather than bureaucrats. The virtue of this approach, championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, is that it is in touch both with market forces and the way Florida is evolving — regionally. It’s also in touch with the way universities now function — not just as traditional ivory towers, but also as economic catalysts, fully integrated into their regional economies.
The problem with unleashing the university hounds is that local boards of trustees are likely to provide either too little direction overall or too much specific interference in academic affairs. There’s also the political shock inherent in cutting the state out of its oversight role too quickly and too broadly.
With the dynamic unresolved, the system operates as an ongoing, dog-eat-dog competition among the schools for money that subordinates quality to growth. The smaller universities scrimp by as best they can; the larger schools with bigger ambitions and bigger funding pots starve undergraduate education and divert resources to programs and professors that will help them make a name for themselves.
Meanwhile, there are so many students competing for enrollment at state universities that the schools can pretend to offer a better education than they do. Acceptance into UF now requires scores almost at the Ivy-League level. What does that mean, however, when all those bright kids will study at a school with one of the highest ratios of classes with more than 100 students and one of the lowest ratio of classes with fewer than 20? As for access, Florida’s universities may remain among the cheapest in the country to attend, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into either access or diversity. More than half of the students at UF come from families making more than $100,000 a year, and Florida distributes financial aid primarily as an entitlement, not on the basis of need.
The Pappas Report, since its release earlier this year, has become a catalyst for efforts to move the system off its current equilibrium. More recently, three university presidents — UF’s Bernie Machen, FSU’s T.K. Wetherell and USF’s Judy Genshaft — convinced Gov. Charlie Crist to allow them to increase their tuitions in 2008. Meanwhile, former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham has instigated a lawsuit seeking to establish that the Board of Governors, not the Legislature, should set tuition.
With college and university presidents energized and angry with Crist, and with Graham’s lawsuit, the higher-ed pot may be starting to boil. The governor may decide to avoid the heat in the short term, but at some point he needs to start exercising some real leadership — and create a higher-ed legacy for himself more substantial than “it’s still real cheap.” Since the Pappas Report appeared, three other states — Ohio, New York and Arizona — have created comprehensive reform plans for their higher-ed systems. Florida is falling further behind.
While political realities may mean parts of the Pappas Report are non-starters, the report is correct that Florida’s higher-ed system will have to — somehow — differentiate the roles of the schools. It’s also right that the community colleges and independent schools are strong, vital elements in the system — and key to meeting the demands of growth. And it’s right that the system will have to deal with the effects of the Prepaid College Plan and Bright Futures, programs that for all their good intentions help imprison the system in mediocrity.
The report suggests some universities, including some of the largest, choose a primarily undergraduate role. Would it make sense to consider the inverse — that the three or five biggest state universities be allowed to trade some slice of their per-student funding for even more freedom in setting tuition and pursuing their research goals? That approach could encourage entrepreneurialism by the big schools rather than anoint winners. It would also discourage growth for growth’s sake. The money foregone by the big schools could then be distributed among the smaller schools to beef up undergraduate education systemwide.
Wiser heads than mine will have better ideas. Florida’s economy is maturing. The state overall is moving toward quality and away from its low-cost, growth-at-any-cost heritage. The state’s schools of higher education need to be on that train. And Crist needs to start moving from being an interesting governor to becoming an important one.