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Perspective

For a better Florida

HIGHER EDUCATION: Too many students, too little money don't bode well for the state.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published February 25, 2007


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The structure of Florida's higher education system dates back to 1956, the same year lawmakers said okay to establishing the University of South Florida as the state's fourth public university.

Today there are 11 universities and nearly 300,000 students. Education officials are bracing for tens of thousands more in coming years - enough to fill a 12th large college by the end of this decade.

"The question we face is, will a 1956 structure meet 2026 needs?" said Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state university system.

"That setup served us well then, but is it really the structure we need going forward?"

The general consensus among lawmakers and university leaders is a resounding "No."

"Because of the global world we are now in, the competition that faces us, the increase in low-income and minority students, we need to make changes in higher education," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach. "A long-range plan is essential."

But what kind of changes? What kind of plan?

Rosenberg said he's optimistic about legislators' support for proposed multimillion-dollar programs to boost university research and attract top faculty, and for expanding need-based aid that sends first-generation students to college.

Lynn promises legislation that demands more accountability of universities. She sees community colleges playing a greater role in educating Floridians, through bachelor's degree programs and partnerships with four-year universities.

"I really feel different about the support this year," Rosenberg said. "I feel good about the questions being asked."

But a major overhaul as outlined recently by a private consultant seems doubtful, at least for the upcoming session, because it would require changes that are just too politically touchy to gain traction.

For example, the Pappas Consulting Group concluded institutions are competing with each other for national research status when, instead, some of them should build stronger baccalaureate programs.

Evoking memories of former chancellor Adam Herbert's doomed proposal to create "tiers" of universities, Pappas suggested Florida consider a separate category of "state colleges" that focus solely on bachelor's degrees. Community colleges, large branch campuses and even private universities could opt in.

Existing universities like the University of Central Florida and Florida International University don't want any part of such a sub-system. Instead, their hopes are set on establishing new medical schools that could bring them the kind of federal research dollars USF officials always brag about.

Rock-bottom tuition

The Pappas group also recommended the state re-evaluate its rock-bottom in-state tuition and its popular Bright Futures merit scholarship program.

Florida's in-state tuition is the lowest in the country, about $2,200 a year, not including fees for athletics and other student activities. That, coupled with Bright Futures, threatens to "bankrupt" the system as waves of high school graduates enroll in public universities, Pappas warned.

That observation, too, is a familiar one.

Six years ago, then-chancellor Herbert called Bright Futures a "ticking time bomb" whose spiraling costs would deny the neediest students equal access to a higher education.

No matter.

Senate President Ken Pruitt and other powerful lawmakers remain staunch defenders of Bright Futures, the Lottery-backed program lawmakers established in 1997 to keep top high school graduates from leaving Florida for Ivy League colleges.

Gov. Charlie Crist wants to increase the Bright Futures fund by nearly $26-million next year, to $372-million. And his proposed $3.5-billion budget for state universities freezes tuition.

In fact, Crist is adamant he won't support anything that raises the cost for Florida students attending the 11 universities. That includes a technology fee of up to $10 per credit hour, proposed by student leaders and the board that oversees the universities.

Crist also opposes University of Florida president Bernie Machen's controversial request to charge incoming undergraduates an extra $500 per semester to raise millions for additional faculty and academic counselors.

Gainesville Sen. Steve Oelrich and House Rep. Charles S. "Charlie" Dean of Inverness, both Republicans, are sponsoring bills that would pave the way for the fee, even though Machen recently told UF trustees that the proposal likely will die this session.

Nonetheless, Machen has powerful supporters. FSU president T.K. Wetherell, a former House Speaker, said such a differential fee is precisely what the university system needs.

"The same funding formula that works for UF and FSU isn't going to work for New College," Wetherell said. "You've got to come up with a new funding system, because what's good for one isn't good for the rest."

Machen would use the $36-million in annual revenue to strengthen his undergraduate programs by hiring 200 additional professors and 100 academic counselors.

He believes smaller classes and more varied course offerings will help boost UF into the elite top-10 list of public universities - a class that includes the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UC-Berkeley.

Machen's fee proposal reflects some university leaders' growing frustration at Florida's low tuition. For that, he can blame Bright Futures.

Because the program puts the state on the hook for tens of thousands of tuition bills each year, lawmakers keep the program's costs down by keeping tuition low.

Bright Futures cost $69.3-million its first year and sent more than 47,000 students to college.

Gov. Crist's proposed $372-million for Bright Futures would pay for 159,301 students, many of whom could afford tuition on their own.

At UF, 95 percent of incoming in-state freshmen are on Bright Futures scholarships this year, and a voluntary survey conducted in fall 2004 found the median family income of responding incoming freshman was between $95,000 and $100,000. Nearly 23 percent reported incomes of more than $150,000.

But voting parents now count on Bright Futures, so lawmakers are loath to let them down, no matter their income.

Last year, the state expanded the program so that community college students can get their full tuition covered. Sen. Lynn is sponsoring a bill to extend Bright Futures to undergraduate courses taken during the summer.

A shift in priorities

As reluctant as some legislators are to mess with tuition or Bright Futures or universities' research aspirations, Rosenberg sees hopeful shifts in their priorities for higher education.

For example, the First Generation Matching Grants established last year with $11.5-million provides need-based aid to first-generation community college and university students, many of them minorities.

"The First-Generation program was a very important step in recognizing the need for financial assistance for needy students," Rosenberg said. "It's a harbinger of things to come, I think, and it reflects a growing national trend."

Crist's proposed budget for next year includes $101.2-million to pay for the 6,738 new students expected to enroll in the state university system. In previous years, the state budget typically paid for only 50 to 60 percent of new enrollment.

Crist also wants to spend $80-million for university research programs and recruiting top faculty.

"Before, state funding wasn't even addressing the growing enrollment and the growing demands, and it wasn't helping us address the changing landscape with global competition," Rosenberg said.

"I do sense that the tone is even more supportive than it was last year."

Still, some lawmakers wonder how long the current structure, with its emphasis on a "value" education, can sustain itself.

"Zero tuition increase sounds great for students, but we continue to go into the hole," said Oelrich, chairman of the Senate's Higher Education Committee.

"Over 15 or 20 years, that's a big ticket."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 850 224-7263 or Top">svansickler@sptimes.com.

 

Top 75 Flagship Universities' 2006 Tuition and Fees

In-state Out-of-state

1. Penn State $12,164 $22,712

2. University of Vermont $11,324 $26,308

3. University of New Hampshire $10,401 $22,851

4. Rutgers University $9,958 $18,463

5. University of Ill., Urbana-Champaign $9,882 $23,968

6. University of Michigan $9,723 $29,131

7. University of Massachusetts $9,595 $19,317

8. Clemson University $9,400 $19,824

9. University of Minnesota $9,174 $20,803

10. Michigan State University $8,793 $21,438

74. Florida State University $3,307 $16,439

75. University of Florida $3,206 $17,790

 

Crist's higher education proposals

$1.2-billion: Community colleges total funding, a $66.4-million increase, or 6 percent.

**Includes $58.2-million for expanded access and $1-million for bachelor's programs

$3.5-billion: State universities total, a $137.5-million increase, or 4.1 percent.

**includes $101.2-million to fully cover an expected 6,738 new students.

**includes $10.2-million for the planning of new medical schools at FIU and UCF

**includes $80-million for research Centers of Excellence, World-Class Scholars and science and engineering research that contribute to economic development.

$372-million: Bright Futures, enough for 159,301 total students

$12.5-million: First-Generation Matching Grants, $1-million more than the current year

$120.5-million: Florida Student Assistance Grant financial aid, same as this year

$103.6-million: Florida Resident Access Grant financial aid, a $1-million increase

[Last modified February 24, 2007, 21:56:03]


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