January 22, 2020

Editor's Page

Laying the groundwork for higher-ed success

Mark R. Howard | 5/29/2018

The quick-and-dirty status report on Florida’s colleges and universities: The state college/community college system qualifies among the top five in the country, if not outright No. 1. Among state universities, UF has cracked the U.S. NewsÕ top 10 list of public universities and is among the 60 members of the American Association of Universities, a group of elite research universities. UF and FSU have achieved “pre-eminent” status as defined by the Legislature; USF and UCF are close. The entire university system has strong, aspirational leadership, both in the various presidents’ offices and in Marshall Criser III, the university system’s chancellor.

Two distinguishing features of Florida’s higher-ed system laid much of the groundwork for the current success. First, the common course-numbering system means that courses have the same numbers, content and often the same texts throughout the entire higher-ed system — Math 101 is the same in Pensacola as it is in Miami. Second, the state’s “articulation” policy guarantees that those who complete two-year degrees at a community (now state) college in Florida can seamlessly transfer to a fouryear school and pursue a baccalaureate degree.

It was not always so.

Last year, I was neighbors with a man named Rod Hurley. Rod, who’s 74, grew up on Pine Island near Fort Myers. An FSU grad, he has a doctorate and a career’s worth of expertise in educationrelated statistics, budgeting and planning. “I was heavy into numbers,” he says. He’s retired from both the Naval Reserve and the state of Florida, where he was for a time director of planning, evaluation, research and management information systems for the community college system. He later became the master planner for all higher education in Maryland and was an administrator and faculty member at Hillsborough Community College.

In the course of talking with Rod about his career, I heard the back story on how the course-numbering system and articulation policies took shape — and how much hard work it took from a lot of people whose efforts took place mostly behind the scenes.

In the early 1960s, when only about 6 million people lived in Florida, universities ruled the higher-ed roost. The four-year schools and community colleges were worlds apart and did little to coordinate what they offered. And so community college students who transferred to a university to pursue a baccalaureate degree might find that the university didn’t recognize many of the courses they’d taken. The university might claim its course was different from the community college’s, or renumber it, or hide a basic introductory course within a specific department — instead of just offering Intro to Statistics, for example, it might offer Intro Statistics for Psychology, or for Math, or Engineering. It was the same course, of course — just cloaked in a departmental disguise.

The universities weren’t bad actors; they were just responding to the financial incentives in place. Their funding was determined largely by how many full-time students they had. By keeping the former community college students in school longer, they generated higher enrollment numbers — and more state funding, more professors and more graduate assistants.

This bit of rent-seeking by the universities wasn’t the most efficient or admirable way to go about education, either for students or the state.

In the mid-1960s, the late James Wattenbarger, who had designed a system of state-supported community colleges within driving distance of every Floridian while a graduate student at UF, was serving as head of the Division of Community Colleges. Wattenbarger got 15 community colleges to form a research group to gather data that might support a plan for students to transition from community college to universities more smoothly. In order to be able to compare data fairly from one school to the next, the group developed the common course-numbering system, so that Statistics 101 in Miami-Dade was the same as Statistics 101 in Indian River.

Meanwhile, community college officials lobbied the Florida Department of Education to nudge the universities to get behind articulation. Rod and an education official named Mike DeCarlo wrote an application for a $143,500 federal grant that paid for DeCarlo to travel the state setting up committees to establish the common course-numbering approach throughout the higher-ed system, universities included. DOE Commissioner Floyd Christian and an associate commissioner named Cecil Golden were instrumental in getting the community colleges and universities to work together, Rod says. With a few more grants and Golden’s skill at coordination, a full-blown articulation program was developed and adopted in 1971.

That brief description unfairly compresses more than a halfdozen years of hard, often contentious behind-the-scenes work and research — thousands of hours of travel, committee meetings, discussions and arguments among hundreds of educators, bureaucrats, education officials and politicians.

A bureaucratic slog might not be the most riveting tale you’ll read this month. But the course-numbering system and articulation saved the state millions of dollars by avoiding duplication. Those policies increased access to higher-ed and have provided a framework for accountability that lets the schools focus on excellence rather than on the much lower bar of accreditation. They also made Florida an educational leader and have been emulated by states from Michigan to California.

The story is a reminder that, with vision, the right support and with policymakers focused on what’s good for Florida, government can move us forward, and that Florida can get it right. The articulation program, as Rod says, is a “shining example of a state performing both its social and fiscal responsibility” — to benefit all its citizens.

 

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