Higher ed powers economy

By Ed H. Moore, Special to the Times
Published March 1, 2008

With Florida's economy slumping, higher education stands ready to play a vital role in securing the long-term well-being of the state. Our future depends on the quality of the work force we can offer businesses.

Florida spends hundreds of millions of dollars to attract companies to relocate here. At the same time, we have quality economic engines already in Florida working to provide employees the state will need and assisting students who seek to climb the economic ladder of success. These thousands of students will help to fire the Florida economy. These are the teachers, doctors, nurses and computer specialists of Florida's future, and as students they are assisted by a grant provided by the state, the Florida Resident Access Grant, or FRAG. This grant is provided to full-time students who attend Florida-based, not-for-profit institutions accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which also accredits Florida state universities and community colleges.

FRAG is less than one quarter of the cost to the taxpayers of sending a student to a public institution, providing great leverage for the state. FRAG is less than 1.5 percent of what the state spends on higher education, and in return these 28 institutions produce 27 percent of the bachelor's degrees in Florida. Beyond this, at no cost to the taxpayers, these same schools produce 38 percent of the state's master's degrees, 40 percent of the doctorates and 55 percent of the first professional degrees. These are private institutions in the public service offering critically important economic engines for our state.

Imagine if the schools these students attended were a non-Florida entity that came to the state and offered to do this for Florida:

-produce 26 percent of all undergraduate teaching degrees and 41 percent of all degrees in education,

-produce more than a quarter of all nurses,

-produce close to half of the degrees granted in the five identified critical needs of the state,

-have 28 main sites and over 180 total sites, bringing education to place-bound and nontraditional students, with a gross annual expenditure in excess of $6-billion, and employ more than 26,000 people in high-paying, clean-industry jobs,

-enroll 44 percent minority students and enroll 49 percent of those who receive the FRAG who are first in their families to go to college,

-focus on significant numbers of students from lower-income families who are eligible for federal Pell grants, on families earning under $60,000 in annual income, and

-create access for students at a time when the public systems are overcrowded and reducing admissions.

Imagine the reception by the state to this kind of offer. This is what is currently provided now by the 28 schools of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida. The state should be seeking to expand partnerships with ICUF schools while moving toward funding structures in the public systems that improve the competitive position of Florida compared to other states. We hear much about how we are in a "global economy" and how competitive the world has become. The reality, however, is that our toughest competition comes from other states. Attracting world-class businesses and research organizations to Florida will be hampered if we do not offer higher education opportunities for these companies, their employees and their families. Independent institutions offer one component of what Florida has to offer, but to remain viable and strong it is imperative that the FRAG remain viable and strong.

For 29 years, the Legislature and past governors have embraced FRAG as a tool to improve access to higher education and to offer expanded choice and opportunity to students while reducing the burden on taxpayers. The Legislature should be commended for the foresight to create and expand this program that now has over 36,000 full-time Florida resident taxpaying students participating.

The FRAG is a success. Hundreds of thousands of students have benefitted from this program, adding both vibrancy and skill to the Florida economy.

In these difficult economic times, it is critical that this program remain strong. Florida needs to fully embrace the tremendous value added offered to our culture, our economy and our future by what can be done using the tools of higher education.

Ed H. Moore, Ph.D., is president of the Independent Colleges & Universities of Florida.