Higher Education: A system out of cash and short of options

By Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2008

What good is admission to one of Florida's 11 public universities if, once you get there, the education is mediocre? How valuable is a degree from the University of South Florida if the professors are so overloaded and class offerings so scant, it takes an extra year or more to graduate?

This is the conundrum facing cash-strapped university presidents and state higher education leaders. After years of preaching "access and quality," they concede they can no longer promise Florida taxpayers both.

Consider: The university system is losing $157-million to its current-year base funding because of statewide revenue shortfalls, and it will lose as much as $171-million more when lawmakers meet this spring to prepare the state's 2008-09 budget.

Universities like Florida State and Florida A&M are preparing to lay off dozens of professors and staffers. USF is asking professors to take on heavier class loads because the university can't afford to fill vacant positions.

Colleges across the state are preparing to cut enrollment, reversing years of steroid-like growth and perhaps ending the long tradition that guarantees community college graduates a seat. Meanwhile, the governor wants to cut millions in scholarships that allow Floridians to afford smaller private colleges like Eckerd and Rollins.

It doesn't sound like the best recipe for building the state's work force or future economy, but university system leaders say budget cutbacks are forcing their hand.

"Quality is now at risk," said Carolyn Roberts, chairwoman of the Board of Governors that oversees the 11 state universities. "Access is important to our state, but quality has to be the No. 1 priority."

The situation has certainly grown more dire in recent months, as the state budget situation soured and relations between the Board of Governors and lawmakers iced over.

But it's no surprise that the system is in this state. In many ways, the system has been broken for a long time.

Graduate tuition for out-of-state students is among the highest in the nation, meaning universities here have a tough time attracting top students from around the country. Meanwhile, undergraduate tuition and fees for Floridians is the lowest in the country and covers just a quarter of what it takes to educate a student.

A Chronicle of Higher Education study found that Florida, while among the largest states, ranks 44 out of 50 for state appropriations. Two years ago, Florida ranked No. 27.

State dollars don't even cover all of the 300,000 students enrolled. The state failed to fund more than 6,500 students sitting in public university classrooms right now.

The state's revenue shortfall of more than $2-billion is making finances worse. USF will end the budget year in June having lost about $26-million. UF, the state flagship, will lose $40-million.

Meanwhile, professors aren't getting raises of any significance, even though they're expected to take on more students. Little wonder, then, that professors are leaving for states like North Carolina and South Carolina, which have raised their investments in higher education by 23 to 26.5 percent since 2005.

"I like Florida and FSU, but we feel we're being forced out by a Legislature that values tax cuts over education,"FSU geography professor Barney Warf said in an e-mail to the Times.

He said he is leaving for a job at the University of Kansas. His wife, a Spanish instructor at FSU, will go with him.

No easy fixes

Improving Florida's higher education system will require tough, unpopular choices that go far beyond freezing enrollment or laying off faculty.

But the changes many say are necessary - significantly higher tuition, a revamp of the Bright Futures merit scholarship, more need-based aid - have little to no chance of happening this legislative session.

"Probably not," conceded South Florida Democratic Sen. Jeremy Ring, vice chairman of the body's higher education appropriations committee.

"As a state, everyone here needs to show a higher appreciation of our higher education system. If not, we're not going to get out of this crisis. The universities have to be the catalyst to drive our economy, and that requires significant funding."

But Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-St. Lucie, is Bright Futures' founder and chief protector. Pruitt never finished college, so the cause of helping students afford college is personal for him.

Under his tenure, the program that covers tuition based on high school grades and SAT scores is pretty much untouchable, even though critics say it gives too generously to students who can well afford college on their own.

Bright Futures is a major reason why Florida's average tuition and fees - $3,361 a year - are lower than any other state. When tuition goes up, so does the state's bill to cover Bright Futures. So even though university presidents say they cannot offer a top education at rock-bottom prices, lawmakers resist significant tuition increases.

The other tuition anchor is the Florida Prepaid College program, which allows families to lock in today's college prices when their children are still in diapers. Florida Prepaid leaves a cushion for a tuition increase of only 6.5 percent each year. Anything more does not sit well with their actuaries. Yet Chancellor Mark Rosenberg says it would take an increase of about 13 percent a year for five years just to get to a rank of No. 37 nationwide - the same as Mississippi.

Gov. Charlie Crist recently told the Board of Governors that while he supported the 5 percent hike that took effect in January, he will not support another increase.

The governor's no-increase warning aside, the board voted the following day to raise tuition by 8 percent in the fall, a move that would generate an extra $32-million a year. But lawmakers maintain the board can't do so without their approval.

The tuition authority dispute is in court, and could drag on for a while. In the meantime, tensions between the board and Legislature seem to grow worse by the day.

Minutes after the board voted on the tuition hike on Jan. 24, Sen. Pruitt sent out a terse mass e-mail blasting their decision as the "camel's nose under the tent." It was just the latest such e-mail to come from his office in recent months.

Harder to get in

Amid all the political maneuvering and uncertainty, what are universities and community colleges to do?

"We're going to have to ask some very difficult questions about how many students we can afford to enroll and educate," said USF provost Ralph Wilcox.

The 11 universities already narrowed their doors a few months back, when they froze freshman enrollment levels. Now they're devising plans to cut overall enrollment, likely by reducing the number of freshmen and community college transfer students they'll accept.

That means it will be harder than ever to get into one of the 11 public colleges, especially the top three research institutions of UF, USF and FSU. It means more high school graduates will turn to community colleges for their first two years - yet they might not get into a four-year Florida university to finish the degree they started.

Already, Hillsborough and Miami-Dade community colleges have among the highest enrollments in the country. And their governing body hasn't given them permission to turn students away.

Over 15,000 transferred from community colleges to one of Florida's public universities in fall 2006, according to the Board of Governors. Those transfers represented more than 31 percent of all new arrivals in the state university system that year.

The strain on students is already starting to show.

Ashley Burnett, 20, graduated from Gaither High in Tampa and is a second-year health science major at UF.

She's applying to UF's occupational therapy program next year and needs certain classes.

"I tried to get into technical writing this semester, and they only had like two sections available," she said. "It was really stressful. A lot of classes are super crowded."

"The teachers are so stressed and overwhelmed. It's hard to ask questions in class because there's so many people."

"I would pay more tuition if I knew it would be less stressful here."

Incoming UF freshmen will pay more starting in the fall - 15 percent above the base statewide tuition each year, until UF's tuition reaches 40 percent above the base. UF, FSU and USF get to charge more under a "differential tuition" plan lawmakers passed last session.

The extra tuition was supposed to provide the resources to help elevate the three research institutions into a higher class, closer to the likes of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But with all the millions cut from those universities since the differential was approved, now it will likely just leave the trio less worse off than the other eight Florida institutions.

Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, sits on the Higher Education Appropriations Committee. He said lawmakers are in for a lot of angry voters if they don't make some fixes.

"Imagine being a parent, and you've been paying taxes, doing your part, thinking your child would be able to get a quality education from one of our universities," he said. "And all of a sudden there's no room at the inn? We are posturing ourselves for a heck of a lot of ridicule that can only be changed by finding new revenue."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com,(813) 226-3403 or (850) 224-7263.

For A Better Florida 

[Issues facing the 2008 Legislature]

is the St. Petersburg Times' preview of the annual legislative session. Published every year since 1951, it presents news articles and opinions intended to stimulate debate over some of the most important issues facing our state. This is the second of a four-part series, which began Feb. 10 (growth and energy and an essay by Howard Troxler), and will continue on Feb. 24, (the budget and gambling) and March 2 (property taxes and insurance).

Florida Universities By the Numbers

11: Number of public universities

300,000: students enrolled

$2.2-billion: SUS budget, 2007-08**

31.1 to 1: Faculty-student ratio

25 to 1: national average ratio

$3,361: Annual in-state, undergraduate tuition and fees

$4,807: Mississippi's in-state, undergraduate tuition and fees

45 %: How much Florida would have to raise its tuition to reach Mississippi's level.

50th: Where Florida ranks among 50 states

42nd: Where Florida ranks for need-based financial aid

$390-million: Lottery revenues set aside this year for the Bright Futures merit scholarship

Zero: Portion of Bright Futures based on financial need

80: Percent of state aid dedicated to Bright Futures

20: Percent of state aid set aside for needy students

27: Percent of adult Florida population with a degree

46th: Florida's rank in bachelor degree production

** Not including $171-million more in cuts likely before the year ends June 30.