Consultant: University system is a shambles

Prepaid and Bright Futures plans are unsustainable, report says.

Published January 19, 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.

Fast Facts:


Key recommendations

A consultant hired to look at the structure of Florida's higher education system is suggesting a number of changes:

- Establish a new system of state colleges that focuses solely on undergraduate education. It could include any existing public university that wants to participate, as well as university branch campuses, community colleges and even private, independent universities that meet enrollment criteria.

- Revise the way public universities are funded. Factor in graduation and retention rates, not just head count, when doling out money. Provide extra state support for high-need degree programs such as nursing and K-12 teaching. Invest more state money into research and graduate programs that help the state achieve economic development in areas other than tourism.

- Expand access to distance education. Emphasize online degree programs in high-need areas; provide state funding to increase the number of distance degrees available. The state should also establish a tuition rate that applies solely to distance learning.

- Include private, independent colleges in initiatives that expand access for students, and make them eligible for forgivable loan programs that erase students' debt in exchange for them working in Florida for a certain number of years after graduation.