Florida voters are carefully examining the policy platforms of candidates up and down the ballot, pondering critical issues like national security, the economy, and health care. As is usually the case in election years, public education rarely cracks the list of top voter concerns. While Florida Senate candidates Marco Rubio and Patrick Murphy have offered competing visions for tackling college costs, higher education has failed to become a marquee issue for voters.
Yet there’s ample reason to suggest that it should be. At a time when a post-secondary credential is increasingly essential for career success and economic mobility, voters must attend carefully to issues of cost and quality.
Florida’s 27 major, four-year institutions experienced a 15 percent average increase in tuition. While comparable to the national average, the increase is still significant for any college student. And these tuition hikes come at a time when public universities, in Florida and across the country, continue to increase administrative spending more rapidly than spending on instruction and student assistance.
According to federal data, the University of Florida, for example, increased administrative spending and salaries by nearly 50 percent between 2009 and 2014, compared to an increase of only 22 percent on instruction and student support. Voters might question how these costs grow unabated while tuition continues to rise.
What do students and taxpayers receive for their money? It is a good sign that Florida’s completion rates have risen in recent years, but on-time graduation still remains below 30 percent at six state universities. At the University of Central Florida and University of South Florida, two of the state’s largest public universities, more than half of full-time undergraduates fail to graduate in four years.
Research shows that Florida still can do more to ensure graduates meet the demands of today’s competitive workforce. Consider the recent findings from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s “What Will They Learn?” report, which rates over 1,100 American colleges and universities based on whether they require seven core subjects, including U.S. history, literature, mathematics, and science.
While Florida institutions perform above the national average, the majority of four-year programs in the state receive a “C” or lower — many institutions fall short of preparing students with core knowledge and skills. For example, in a multilingual state, only three schools require the study of a foreign language at an intermediate level.
Families should expect more. By embracing high academic standards and reform, Florida’s colleges and universities can lead on providing degree options that are cost-effective and aligned with workforce needs. Florida leaders are properly working to refocus higher education on its core mission. In 2011 and 2012, system boards of trustees terminated 21 undergraduate programs, suspended six others, and refused to approve three.
Any real change will require a mandate from voters. When students, families, and taxpayers are attuned to the true cost and value of college, policymakers will begin to realize that higher education is a voter priority.
*A review by the University of Florida of the financial data it reported to the federal government determined that it had misreported $19.3 million in funds as “Institutional Support” (i.e., administrative expense) for FY 2014. After correcting for the error, UF’s administrative growth was 29.3% between 2009 and 2014.