Getting a higher education in Florida remains a good deal. The state’s public universities have become more efficient in an era of scarce resources, and some — like the University of Florida and Florida State — consistently manage to rank among the best in the country and the most affordable.
Despite that, state universities are in a bind. They can’t continue to deliver the quality education that Florida’s parents and students rightly demand without getting more help. They’re hobbled by a chronic lack of public investment, pressure to limit tuition, and competition from other states. All of this represents a challenge to the state’s leaders and the Board of Governors as they initiate a nationwide search to replace departing Chancellor Frank Brogan.
The state has to step up or face an erosion in educational quality.
This year, the boards of all 12 state universities agreed to Gov. Rick Scott’s request not to seek a tuition increase if the state restored $300 million in spending cuts and came up with millions more in additional funding. That’s an improvement, but it hardly makes up for as much as $900 million in cutbacks since 2007.
Tuition increases during that period took up some of the slack, but it’s not realistic to expect students and their families to continue to make up for underinvestment by the state.
University tuition remains a bargain in Florida, but the financial burden on students is nearing a ceiling. Less than a decade ago, tuition made up about 20 to 25 percent of the cost of a student’s education. Now, it’s closer to 50 percent, and more on some campuses.
Meanwhile, university students face daunting challenges as a result of changes in financing rules that could put a college degree out of reach for many. They are being squeezed especially hard.
First, Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships have become tougher to get because the state increased the minimum ACT test score required to qualify — from 21 to 22. Next year, the cutoff score becomes 26.
This would strike Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University particularly hard. Their percentage of eligible freshmen would drop from 80 to 20 percent, according to a report prepared by the University of South Florida. At the same time, lifetime eligibility for federal Pell Grants is being reduced from 18 semesters to 12 and student loan interest rates are going up.
In sum: Not a pretty picture. The limitations on access to a university education, the pressure to keep tuition low, and the funding shortfalls represent a triple whammy for the universities.
Without more funding, there are fewer professors and classes, making it next to impossible for students to graduate in four years — a goal set by Gov. Scott and the Legislature. Without salary increases, the best faculty members become easy pickings for rival institutions in other states.
It is all well and good for Gov. Scott and lawmakers to push for new accountability standards and $10,000 bachelor degrees. But that does not address the most urgent needs of the university system, nor the critical issue of educational quality and its inextricable link to the state’s economic growth.
The next chancellor must be ready to meet the challenges head-on, have a strong grasp of the problems facing higher education and possess the political finesse to deal with a tightfisted governor and legislators. They like to talk about improving the university system but so far they haven’t been willing to make the needed investment.