What Florida's good at
The odd news makes the headlines, but the state excels in important areas.
In recent years, Florida’s national profile has been shaped largely by “news of the weird” featurettes and the “Florida man” meme in social media. As readers of this magazine know, the state also has distinguished itself in more substantial ways, from our access to higher ed and land preservation to highway infrastructure and open government laws. On the private-sector side, the state has become an entrepreneurial hotbed, particularly for women. Florida businesses also have transformed the way we think of retirement living and shown us what customer service is all about.
In 2011, Valencia College in Central Florida won the first Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the most prestigious award a community college can win. It marked the beginning of what has been a remarkable run for Florida’s community colleges. Florida has produced another winner (Santa Fe College, in 2015) and six finalists (including both Broward College and Indian River State College, which finished as the top runners-up for the most recent award). No other state has claimed as much hardware. It’s a testament to the strength of the Florida College System, which encompasses 28 institutions that collectively have become the front door to higher education: Nearly two-thirds of the state’s high school graduates pursuing public postsecondary education begin at a Florida college. Some 50% of the students at the state’s universities began their studies at a state college. Those who’ve been impressed include Gov. Rick Scott, who last year vetoed a massive higher education package approved by the Legislature that would have helped Florida’s universities at the expense of its colleges.
Higher Education Access
Though Florida still lacks a truly elite public university on a par with the University of Virginia or the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Florida has moved into the top 10 in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and the state is a national leader when it comes to providing access to higher education. The state’s political leaders have traditionally prioritized affordability in higher education, holding down tuition and establishing broad financial aid programs such as Bright Futures. (Only Wyoming has lower instate tuition.) They’ve also established a performance-based budget system that provides incentives for the schools to keep students — there are now more than 350,000 enrolled in state universities — moving toward degrees. At a time when many university leaders nationally prize exclusivity, key university leaders in Florida — most notably the University of Central Florida’s John Hitt — have chosen to emphasize access and inclusion. Meanwhile, Florida’s community colleges have offered a gateway to higher ed: More than 80% of freshman and sophomore minority students enrolled in Florida public higher education are at a state college. Another strength: The state’s “2+2” policy guarantees those who complete associate’s degrees a place at a university if they want to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Just 36% of Florida’s population was born here, making Florida more transient than any other state except Nevada. While transience has its downside — non-native Floridians may lack a sense of community pride or still make their charitable donations “back home” — the demographic churn also has an upside. Florida is a welcoming place for newcomers, new businesses and new ideas. Recently arrived executives consistently say they’re welcomed into civic life and can participate sooner in important initiatives without having to establish “tenure.”
Says Orlando native Jacob Stuart, a former longtime president of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Central Florida Partnership: “I think it’s the greatest asset we have.”
A diverse, transient population also makes Florida a melting pot for small business. About 44% of all businesses in Florida are minority-owned, well above the 29% national average. Florida is second only to Georgia in number of black-owned businesses (251,216). And in Miami, 69% of businesses are Hispanic-owned, the second-highest percentage among large U.S. cities. (El Paso, Texas, is No. 1, with 74% of businesses Hispanic-owned).
Female entrepreneurship also is strong, with an estimated 1 million women-owned businesses in Florida, up from 437,355 in 2002, according to a study by American Express Open. Since 2002, the number of women-owned businesses in Orlando has grown from about 40,270 to 124,300. At 209%, that ranks as the third-largest percentage increase among major U.S. metros.
About 60 years ago, the Florida State Parks system’s 50 parks and other areas totaled 72,737 acres and drew 3.3 million visitors. Now, there are 175 state parks, trails and historic sites, covering nearly 800,000 acres, visited in the most recent year by 32.2 million. The Florida State Parks Service is the only state system in the nation to win the National Gold Medal from the National Recreation and Park Association more than once. Florida’s a three-time winner, most recently in 2013. Two state initiatives, Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, have protected 2.4 million acres in Florida. Florida Forever funding was minimal during and after the Great Recession, but the new state budget includes $100 million.
“They made it possible to think about retiring in a place where you’re going to be active, intellectually stimulated and engaged with the rest of the world.” — Andrew Carle, founding director, Program in Senior Housing Administration, George Mason University