Dec 112012
 

Published: December 9, 2012

Florida may reduce tuition for select majors

By LIZETTE ALVAREZ

MIAMI — Rick Scott, businessman turned politician, campaigned for governor in 2010 with promises to run Florida like a successful business — more efficiency, lower costs, less hand-wringing and measurable results.

He meant higher education, too, but until recently that meant mostly shrinking budgets.

Now, looking for more value on the remaining dollars, Governor Scott and Republican lawmakers are prodding Florida’s 12 state universities to find ways to steer students toward majors that are in demand in the job market.

The message from Tallahassee could not be blunter: Give us engineers, scientists, health care specialists and technology experts. Do not worry so much about historians, philosophers, anthropologists and English majors.

To nudge students toward job-friendly degrees, the governor’s task force on higher education suggested recently that university tuition rates be frozen for three years for majors in “strategic areas,” which would vary depending on supply and demand. An undergraduate student would pay less for a degree in engineering or biotechnology — whose classes are among the most expensive for universities — than for a degree in history or psychology. State financing, which has dropped drastically in the past five years, would be expected to make up the tuition gap.

At the same time, Mr. Scott wants the state’s 28 colleges (formerly called community colleges) to offer some of their four-year degrees for $10,000. That amount is $3,000 or so less than the typical cost. So far, several colleges are planning to take him up on the challenge, which would attract new students and encourage people to complete their degrees. The idea for a $10,000-degree originated last year with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. In Florida, the challenge has been lauded by business groups.

“Every business has to figure out how to make itself more efficient,” Mr. Scott said when announcing the challenge at St. Petersburg College last month. “They’ve got to use technology. They’ve got to use the Internet, things like that. We can do the same thing with our state colleges.”

Universities cannot offer four-year degrees for $10,000 — their average is more than $24,000 — but they are being asked to spend their money more judiciously. They are also being asked to quantify their performances by, for example, figuring out which of their students actually get jobs after graduation.

Dale A. Brill, the chairman of the governor’s task force and a “liberal arts guy,” said universities needed to be realistic. Generous state financing is no longer an option, at least not in Florida. Universities, he said, need to be practical about the value of their degrees at a time when well-paying jobs are scarce, a position taken by a growing number of institutions and one that underscores the latest philosophical divide over education.

“The higher education system needs to evolve with the economy,” said Mr. Brill, the president of the Florida Chamber Foundation. “People pay taxes expecting that the public good will be served to the greatest degree possible. We call that a return on investment.”

Florida’s new Senate president, Don Gaetz, a Republican, agrees. He has said he wants “to lash higher education to the realities and opportunities of the economy.”

But the shift toward market-based degrees and greater affordability after five years of budget cuts has its detractors.

In a letter to the governor, Roberto Martinez, the vice chairman of the State Board of Education, which oversees state colleges, called it a “very bad idea.”

“The ‘$10,000 Bachelor’s Degree’ is not a serious policy,” he wrote. “It will be perceived as a gimmick pretending to be a policy used as a sound bite.”

At the University of Florida, the state’s most prestigious campus, a group of history professors criticized the recommendation for tiered tuition and organized a protest petition. Liberal arts devotees across the state are signing it. The professors said the move would inevitably reduce the number of students who take humanities classes, which would further diminish financing for those departments. In the end, Florida universities with nationally prominent programs, like the one for Latin American history at the University of Florida, will lose coveted professors and their overall luster.

The decision on tuition differences and policies like it rests with the Board of Governors, which oversees the university system; the governor; and the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans. How to finance and reshape universities will be a priority in the next legislative session, which begins in March.

“If you are going to become an urban engineer, a degree in the humanities would help you do that,” said Lillian Guerra, an associate professor of Cuban and Caribbean history who said she was lured to the University of Florida from Yale University because of its world-class Latin American studies program. “A degree in the humanities is foundational for someone who is an urban planner or in the tourism industry, for example. It gives students a set of analytical skills and writing skills.”

“I thought this would be valued here,” she said of the liberal arts.

The $10,000 challenge and the blue-ribbon panel’s recommendations come as Florida is rethinking the role of universities and colleges in the economy. In the past five years, Florida universities and colleges have seen steep drops in financing.

State spending per student declined 26 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to a report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, a nonprofit group of national education officials. That ranks among the sharpest reductions in the country, in part because enrollment also boomed. Last year, Mr. Scott and the Legislature lopped off another $300 million.

To make up for that money, the Board of Governors has allowed tuition rates to climb 71 percent over the last four years. Florida’s universities are still among the most affordable in the nation, but Mr. Scott strenuously opposes tuition increases because they lead to student debt and limit access.

The education task force recognized the dire state of higher education financing. In its report, it indicated that the state’s first priority should be to increase public money for universities and colleges next year so that they remain competitive. Barring that, tuition increases should be allowed once again, the report said.

The state cuts have made these institutions leaner and more efficient. But many university leaders have concluded that more staff reductions and reduced salaries will erode the quality and reputation of the state’s universities, which will not inspire companies to invest in Florida. Last week, university presidents went to the State Capitol and asked for $118 million more in financing for next year, the equivalent of a 15 percent tuition increase.

Florida already struggles with low graduation rates for high schools and a shortage of students who are well prepared to tackle challenging majors.

“It’s not sour grapes; everyone has had to tighten their belt,” said Judy Genshaft, the president of the University of South Florida in Tampa, which is building a national reputation. “We are still achieving the best we can, but we are near a tipping point here.”

For the colleges opting to offer $10,000 degrees in a few areas — public safety or criminal justice, for example — the challenge is to find ways to bridge the gap of $3,000 or so. Some are exploring great private-public partnerships, which is just what Mr. Scott wants to see happen.

“There are some niche programs where $10,000 makes perfect sense,” said James D. Henningsen, the president of the College of Central Florida, whose school will offer a lower-cost degree in business and organization management next fall. “Our goal is to make an impact. We want to put cash back in people’s pockets and help our community.”

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