Policymakers | General Education

Study: Florida higher ed has room to improve

ORLANDO SENTINEL   |  January 18, 2016 by Eric Bledsoe

Former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio regularly focus on higher-education cost, bringing scrutiny to Florida’s colleges and universities. Scott Maxwell, in a recent column, reiterated Florida’s Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to invest $1 billion more into higher education.

But what specifically will the money be used for? Cost is a critical issue, but Florida’s policymakers, along with its students, families and taxpayers, need to consider not just a college’s cost but its worth.

Appropriately, a college’s worth is strongly tied to job placement. A recent survey by the Committee for Economic Development reveals that the essential competencies most difficult for employers to find are writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Regarding quantitative ability and written communication, approximately half of employers surveyed stated that few or very few “job applicants have sufficient skills and knowledge of this type to be hired by my organization.”

These inadequacies correlate closely with Florida’s youth unemployment problem. In 2014, the annual overall average of unemployment in the state was 6.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet the unemployment of those ages 20 to 24 in the same year was double the overall rate at 12.7 percent.

Low employment is the result of a failure of academic standards, not necessarily of insufficient funding. Universities have lost the will to require core courses like math, science, foreign language and writing that provide durable job preparation. Instead, they favor the theoretical whim of the misleadingly named “skills-based” education, which all too often substitutes a checklist of vague outcomes for actual course requirements.

In What Will They Learn?, an annual study of core requirements published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Florida universities did better than the national average, but there is much room for improvement. Of the 27 Florida schools WWTL examined this year, 12, or 44 percent, earned a “B” grade. As 21st-century America increasingly demands versatile workers and engaged citizens, a foundational and well-rounded general education will become only more crucial to a graduate’s success.

At a time when colleges boast about multiculturalism and historical consciousness, it is shocking that of the 27 Florida schools, only two, the University of Miami and Florida State University, require intermediate-level foreign language. Florida A&M University, moreover, is the only public institution in Florida to require a course in U.S. history or government.

Consequently, one should not be surprised when, according to ACTA’s recent national survey on the Constitution, only 54 percent of college graduates knew the correct term lengths for members of Congress. And with a recent Gallup poll reporting that the economy remains a top issue for Americans, colleges seem out of touch when Jacksonville University is the only Florida school requiring economics. These survey results in civics do not bode well for an informed electorate.

The Florida Board of Governors, the governing body of the State University System, has made positive steps toward more robust core curricular requirements. The board specifically requires composition, math, and science of every student enrolled in the state’s public university system. The board has also empowered trustees, through degree-program oversight, to become stewards of liberal education in Florida.

Nevertheless, they must do more. For instance, instead of rigorous literature and U.S. history requirements, Florida identifies two broad requirements: Humanities and Social Science. The menu of courses is big, and the choices will not necessarily benefit those preparing for citizenship and career.

Universities that fail to set rigorous core requirements will bear the blame for stunted student success post-graduation. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in their widely acclaimed book “Academically Adrift,” cite studies that show only one in five college students reports studying more than 20 hours a week. Of the class of 2009 that Arum and Roksa sampled, one-third reported not taking a single course with more than 40 pages of reading a week.

Florida’s universities must take the lead in reinvigorating the American university and preparing graduates to be ready for a demanding and ever-changing global job market. Spending more money on higher education is not the heal-all one hopes it would be. Universities have a responsibility to taxpayers to cultivate citizens ready for lifelong informed participation in a liberal democracy. Financial investment will be effective only when it accompanies intellectual investment. Therefore, Floridians should ask how the money is spent, not how much.


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