State has paid price for cheap education

By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist
Published February 13, 2007

Suppose a Florida politician said:

"I propose a law saying that no Florida state university should ever rank in the top 10 nationally in the sports of football or basketball."

I suspect we would be talking impeachment, or recall, or riots.

Well, it shows an awful lot about our values that Florida politicians of all stripes were able to say pretty much exactly that the other day about academics.

See, Florida is the cheapest of the cheap when it comes to state universities - low tax support, compared with most states, but also tuition among the nation's lowest.

Without question, that's a cheap deal for taxpayers, and a cheap deal for families trying to pay for college.

But in the long term, it puts Florida's schools in a bind.

That's why the University of Florida, in a burst of desperation, came up with the idea of charging an extra fee of $500 a semester. The money would be used to hire more professors and staff, toward the Gators' goal of becoming a top-10 state university.

But when the idea came up at a meeting in Tallahassee the other day, Florida's politicians of all ranks and parties, from Gov. Charlie Crist on down, stomped all over it.

The nerve of those Gators! Never mind that at $3,200 a year, Florida already ranks at rock bottom among 74 state universities that might be considered "flagship" schools.

Never mind, also, that the fee would not apply to students with need-based financial aid, nor would it be charged against Florida's "Bright Futures" scholarship program.

Here was an interesting quote from state Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville:

"I'm not so sure that in a state that has 11 universities, I want to say, 'Gosh you're the flagship, so you deserve to charge more because you're better.' I don't buy into that."

Now me, I am willing to say exactly that, but that's probably just one more reason I am not a state senator.

The big picture here is that Florida lags far behind the curve in developing a strong state university system.

Last month, a consultant hired by the state Board of Governors set a pretty good stage for what Florida needs to be talking about.

We need stronger vision at the state level, instead of parceling out law schools and med schools and other programs willy-nilly, depending on who has the best backers in the Legislature.

We need to create a "middle tier" of state schools that can meet the demand for four-year college degrees, without stuffing everybody into a few mega-campuses.

We need to figure out how to give Florida's state universities the financial support they ought to have, without being either wasteful with tax dollars, or heartless with tuition.

One of our problems is that we have locked ourselves into cheapness - we have promised both the Bright Futures scholarship and a prepaid tuition program. Any change would cost those programs a bundle, but breaking the deal is politically unthinkable.

Yet the one thing we ought not do is what Florida has always done - drift along, school against school, the Legislature meddling here and there, backing into the future.

Yes, our insurance crisis is a mess, and folks are mad about property taxes - but higher education, more than any other issue, cries out for the leadership of Florida's new governor, and it gives him the chance to achieve greatness.