tampabay.com

Colleges could turn away 60,000, report says

Doors to higher education are being closed to all, says a group that focuses on minorities.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 5, 2008


TAMPA - Between 40,000 and 60,000 students - many of them minorities - could be denied an education in one of Florida's 11 public universities, thanks to years of insufficient funding and complicated political factors that have college presidents preparing to slash enrollment for the first time in decades.

So concludes ENLACE Florida, a grant-funded group that promotes college access and readiness for minorities, in a report sent today to lawmakers and education officials across the state.

"When this is happening, we can't really talk about the value of diversifying the student population, because the doors are being closed to everyone," said Paul Dosal, executive director of ENLACE Florida.

ENLACE officials conclude their report, "Florida's Higher Education on the Brink," by urging lawmakers and college educators to convene a summit that produces bold solutions. State university leaders have recently discussed the need for such a forum.

"The problems in higher education here are so complicated that they're not likely to be solved in a regular legislative session," Dosal said. "So we felt like the best recommendation was to say, 'Listen guys, sit down and figure this out.' We just feel like we're either in crisis or on the brink of a serious one, and something needs to be done."

Dosal's group is particularly concerned with enrollment cuts' effect on minorities.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in the university system, going from less than 14 percent in 1997 to 17.3 percent last year.

"With enrollment freezes and cuts, the competition will intensify, so the minimum test scores and GPAs grade point averages will go up," Dosal said. "And that will make it harder for some of our underrepresented student groups, who tend to score lower."

ENLACE's conclusions are no surprise to university leaders, who have wrestled with the consequences of freezing and cutting enrollment.

"For me, this has caused countless hours of concern," said Carolyn Roberts, chairwoman of the board that oversees Florida's public institutions. "But we're saying that, with this budget, for us to be able to educate our students and give them a competitive degree, we have to limit the institutions to the size they are today."

The Board of Governors, faced with $147-million in cuts to the system this year and up to $171-million next year, last month gave college presidents the green light to cut enrollment, lay off faculty members and take other cost-cutting measures.

The move marked a dramatic shift in policy, ending a decade in which universities expanded enrollment at a rate of roughly 3 percent a year. Today, the system enrolls 300,000. The four largest state institutions, including the University of South Florida, are among the nation's largest, with more than 40,000 students each.

But that kind of continued growth is unlikely now, as budgets shrink and the Board of Governors fights the Legislature for control over tuition.

"By just growing class size, and having a poorer faculty-student ratio, you are just filling more seats," Roberts said. "You are not educating them better."

For the ENLACE report, Dosal used data in the university system over the past decade, coupled with growth projections, to determine the potential "college access gap." He concluded that if universities simply freeze enrollment through 2012, there will be 340,000 students trying to get into a system that holds 300,000.

If universities cut enrollment, there would be 340,000 students trying to get into a system that has room for less than 280,000.

That estimate is based on a hypothetical enrollment cut of 1.5 percent a year for the next five years. Universities have not yet set an enrollment target.

"It was arbitrary, but we tried to come up with a reasonable number in between," Dosal said.

If all of those turned away go to a community college instead, the already crowded two-year institutions would be taxed even more, ENLACE warns. Enrollment could grow from about 385,000 today to 445,000. And unlike in past years, universities might not have seats for students when they finish their two-year degrees.

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