State panel unhappy with grants to students

Graduation rates at private colleges raise a red flag on funding.

Associated Press
Published December 13, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - The state paid nearly $98-million last year for residents to attend Florida's private colleges and universities, but lawmakers said Wednesday that they aren't sure if taxpayers are getting their money's worth.

The Senate Higher Education Committee agreed to consider setting standards after it received a staff report showing six-year graduation rates ranging from a high of 77 percent at 114-student Beacon College in Leesburg to 11 percent at historically black Edward Waters College in Jacksonville among schools receiving the most common type of grant.

"There is something wrong with the system," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "We're not pleased with the universality of the performance."

Committee members discussed potential options for admission requirements, such as high school grade point averages and college entrance test scores, and outcome standards, including graduation and job placement rates.

Committee Chairman Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, asked staffers first, though, to gather more data, including research on whether other states tie strings to public money given to private postsecondary schools.

"We are going to do something," King said. "I think it's up to the people whose ox stands to be gored to give us the most input that they can as to how they think that we can get ... the better bang for the Florida tax dollar being spent."

Bob Boyd, general counsel for the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, said the 28 member schools provide an education at low cost to the state for students who cannot get into public universities for reasons that include limited space and high entrance requirements.

"The state has every right to put benchmarks on the graduation rate," Boyd said. "We are not afraid of those accountability measures."

Boyd, though, said the standards should take into account differences among private and public schools. He said some schools, including Edward Waters, have a high percentage of part-time students who take longer to graduate.

Also, 19 private schools rank among the 22 Florida colleges and universities with the highest percentages of students from families with annual incomes of $60,000 or less, Boyd said.

The state has two grant programs for in-state students who attend private post-secondary schools in Florida, Florida Resident Access and Access to Better Learning and Education.