Consultant: University system is in shambles

Early edition: Prepaid and Bright Futures plans are unsustainable, report says.

Published January 18, 2007

A consultant hired to evaluate Florida’s higher education system says it is haphazard and poorly funded, with its core mission of educating undergraduates lost as universities compete with each other for national status.

In a blunt, biting report released Thursday, Alceste T. Pappas of the Stamford, Conn.-based Pappas Consulting Group Inc. paints a dysfunctional portrait of the 11-university system.

Pappas warns that all of Florida’s public institutions can’t keep trying to be top-notch research schools like the University of Florida.

She takes a swipe at the recent expansion of medical schools, saying the approval of three costly new programs in five years will either “prove that Florida was more visionary than any other state or more undisciplined.”

She says the Bright Futures merit scholarship program and Florida Prepaid College Plan are well-intentioned but unsustainable in their current form.

Coupled with Florida’s rock-bottom tuition, the two programs will “bankrupt” the university system as waves of high school graduates enter the state’s colleges, she concludes.

The board that oversees the 11 universities spent $200,000 in private donations on the evaluation, which included interviews with higher education officials, lawmakers and business leaders.

The result, described by Pappas as “bold and candid,” is sure to stir lots of discussion when the Board of Governors meets next week   in Boca Raton.

Pappas says as much, conceding in the report’s opening letter that her observations and recommendations may be “offensive to many.”

She lists several possible fixes, including better funding for distance-education courses and high-demand degree programs like nursing.

She urges state leaders to provide more money for research and doctoral programs that contribute to Florida’s economic development.

She says the state should focus on increasing the number of students, especially minorities, who graduate from associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs.

And she says universities should be held more accountable, getting state funding based on graduation and retention rates instead of just the number of students they enroll.

But the report’s most sweeping proposal — creating a separate category of universities, community colleges and even private nonprofit colleges dedicated solely to undergraduate education — echoes past recommendations that were never adopted.

In the late 1990s, then-university system chancellor Adam Herbert tried but failed to implement a three-tier system of universities, with research institutions at the top and smaller, primarily undergraduate colleges at the bottom.

Many of Pappas’ conclusions, in fact, mirror other proposals — all largely ignored by lawmakers — dating back to 1991. Even Pappas notes that it is “striking” how rarely such reports ever result in new policies or change.

It’s unclear what will come of this latest assessment.

Members of the Board of Governors didn’t get the report until Thursday, and most did not want to comment until they finished reading it.

Board vice chairwoman Sheila McDevitt was still reading the introduction when contacted, but she expressed support for the concept of a set of colleges dedicated to bachelor’s degrees.

“It’s certainly something I’ve thought about,” said McDevitt, a Florida State University graduate who serves as general counsel and senior vice president for TECO Energy.

“A fallout of this desire to have all these bells and whistles is, in doing so, you forget about the basic mission of undergraduate education.”

Pappas, citing successes in the university systems of California and North Carolina, argues that colleges with “clear and contained” missions can provide the best access to bachelor’s degrees. In the current system, she says, Florida universities boost their undergraduate numbers to “underwrite” their graduate programs.

She suggests Florida take advantage of existing community colleges and private schools with significant enrollment, folding them into the state college system.

Ed H. Moore, executive director of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, was pleased that Pappas’ report recognized smaller schools like Eckerd College and the University of Tampa.

His organization’s 28 institutions produce more than one-third of the bachelor’s degrees in Florida each year, or about 15,000 degrees.

“How could you ignore that?” Moore said.

Still, he wondered how eager independent colleges would be to suddenly join a system governed by the state.

“Schools don’t tend to move from being autonomous to having someone tell them what to do,” Moore said. “But the quasi-public idea ... could function as a contract, where a university agrees to produce a certain number of degrees, and they get paid so much.

“But a full conversion (from private to public college), I wouldn’t see that happening.”

Pappas concludes her letter to the Board of Governors by warning of tough choices ahead.

“Each of the players will have to make difficult choices concerning the relinquishing of power; financial choices ... and demanding more fiscal discipline.”

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.