Florida’s State University System is innovative, cost-effective and of such high quality it can be viewed as a national role model for other states, according to a mostly glowing “report card” released recently by a conservative think tank and a nonprofit academic council.
“Florida Rising: An Assessment of Public Universities in the Sunshine State” from the James Madison Institute, a Florida-based free-market organization, and the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni cites the state as a role model for affordable tuition and graduation rate improvement.
The James Madison Institute was founded by J. Stanley Marshall, a longtime educator who has served on the Board of Governors. Robert Gidel, chairman of Lakeland’s Florida Polytechnic University, serves on its board.
The report says Florida’s universities have fared well, especially during difficult economic times. “The State University System of Florida has in recent years faced major budgetary challenges, remarkable for the size of its reductions in state funding, even when compared to the large cuts seen in so many states struck by the recession of 2008,” the report says.
“What is more surprising in the world of higher education, however, is the progress that Florida’s public universities have achieved on such key indicators of quality as graduation and retention during these challenging times.”
Between 2007 and 2012, state funding for the State University System fell from $2.6 billion to $1.7 billion.
The first report card on Florida universities states that compared with other systems in the nation, the Sunshine State’s higher education opportunities are first-rate.
“The story of Florida’s public universities has particular importance for higher education in other states: if successful, Florida’s proactive initiatives to maximize both access and academic quality will represent a key example for other states to follow and a new benchmark for cost-effectiveness in higher education,” it says.
Florida, it says, has “boldly addressed issues of cost-effectiveness and has set a high standard for transparency and accountability.”
Michael B. Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a primary contributor to the report, said the agencies provide nonbiased assessments of state university systems.
“We are committedly non-partisan,” he said. “The greater part of our agenda on higher education is cost control, cost effectiveness and maximizing quality.”
“Report cards” on university systems have been completed for 11 states, he said.
“We are trying to provide the kinds of examples that help other states around the nation,” he said. “We have looked at the states that offer the most interesting and important lessons for the country, and it’s no surprise we found our way to Florida. Very innovative, very impressive work has been done in Florida in the last few years.”
When faced with financial constraints, the report says, university trustees have two choices: compromise student access by raising tuition or take an “exacting look” at the costs that comprise the institution’s budget priorities. With affordability of higher education already at risk in the state, governing boards are left with “the daunting task of further managing costs without compromising academic quality or further jeopardizing student access.”
State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan expressed gratitude for the report’s assessment. “Following years of budgetary constraints, our universities have emerged stronger and more focused than ever and are making great strides toward national prominence,” he said in a statement.
The report does address several areas that need improvement, citing the need for requirements that would provide students with a more well-rounded education that includes local civic history and learning another language.
“In a state whose history includes the oldest continuous European settlement in the United States and whose neighbor Georgia requires American history for undergraduates in its public universities, it is a sad irony that a fundamental course in the nation’s history is required at only one of Florida’s public universities,” the report said.
“Florida, with so many cultures, it seems utterly off-base for students to not be learning at least one foreign language,” Poliakoff said. “And it needs to offer an understanding of the civic process. Florida has this rich history; it needs to be included.”
Florida already has outlined recommendations regarding the missions of universities and avoidance of overlap. Universities must align annual and strategic plans with the Board of Governors’ goals.
But the creation of Lakeland’s Florida Polytechnic University conflicts with those, the report says.
“Recent events surely underscore the challenges any such effort to bring cohesion the Board of Governors’ best efforts will face. In 2011, the board considered a request by the Lakeland campus of the University of South Florida to seek independence from the USF system, and permission to operate as an independent institution—a move supported by members of the state Senate, but unanimously opposed by USF’s Board of Trustees.
“As part of an attempt at compromise, the (BOG) voted 16-3 to grant USF-Lakeland’s petition, contingent on its meeting benchmarks for full-time enrollment and implementing key administrative functions. Yet the following year, the Florida legislature passed a bill immediately declaring USF-Lakeland independent and removing the conditions set by the board.”
Much of the state’s system is operating quite well, the report determines. Metrics of academic quality, for instance, have shown significant improvement. And, although tuition systemwide increased 58 percent between 2007 and 2012, the hikes were built on a “low base of tuition and fees of $3,525 in 2007.”
Gov. Rick Scott, who has pushed for low tuition costs, issued a statement reacting to the report card. “I strongly agree with the final report recommendation calling for the university system to continue to hold the line on tuition,” he said. “I will also continue to veto any tuition increase proposed by the Florida Legislature.”
Despite budget constraints, quality remains, the report says. Metrics of academic quality showed “significant improvement. The state system had a combined six-year graduation rate of 66 percent—placing it among the top 10 nationally.”
Asked at what point Florida’s methods and results could be deemed important to share with other states, Poliakoff said the time has already arrived. “Florida has already thrown down the gauntlet to other states,” he said. “It has, despite major cuts, shown that through efficiency and cooperation and willpower it can achieve and reach newer heights.”