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Politics

A 13th University? A Look at the 'Next Frontier' in Florida Higher Education Reform

September 2, 2012 - 6:00pm

While the new heads of committees and the agenda for the 2013 session have yet to be determined, there are signs that next years education battles in the Florida Legislature will center around the state university system, as lawmakers debate how to raise much-needed funds and whether to create the Sunshine States first online university.

Ryan Duffy, spokesman for House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was mum on details, but told Sunshine State News that higher education was shaping up to be the next frontier in Florida education reform.

Speaker-designate Weatherford is traveling around the state and in his district, to get input from the people, Duffy said. Were nowhere near having worked out a detailed agenda, but we definitely want to expand access to higher education and make it more affordable.

A step in that direction is likely to be a proposal for the Legislature to create Floridas 13th public university, but dont expect any of the states major metropolitan centers to vie for the opportunity to host it. Weatherfords proposed university wouldnt be made of brick or mortar, but the virtual reality of cyberspace.

We are living in the middle of a technological revolution. ... Through technology that is available now, we have the power to deliver a high-quality education to students anywhere in Florida, Weatherford wrote in January to Dean Colson, chairman of the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 institutions that make up the State University System.

The next university created in our state could be an online university: one that has no student capacity limits, no walls, no marble statues, no football team, and no parking garages. Yet, what it lacks in traditions, it more than makes up with innovation, a student-centered approach, limitless knowledge resources, and lower costs.

Weatherfords proposal was well-received by the board, which has hired the Parthenon Group, a consulting firm, to study the feasibility, economic and otherwise, of establishing a state university that is entirely online.

This university wouldnt be tailored for the traditional student, said Duffy. If established, we think it would be an attractive option for the single mother, or for the student who cant afford to leave his parents home to go off to college. Its about expanding access to more people in the middle class.

The creation of yet another public university for the state is likely to elicit strong criticism, such as that which preceded and followed the recent creation of Floridas 12th such institution, Florida Polytechnic University, on July 1.

Back in April the Florida Democratic Party criticized Republican plans to grant Florida Polytechnic institutional autonomy from the University of South Florida. This move is nothing more than an appalling and wasteful power play by the Republicans in Tallahassee. The people of Florida didnt ask for this university, they dont need it and cant afford it," wrote party spokesman Brannon Jordan.

But arguably one of the fiercest critical voices came from the Republicans own Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, in whose district the new university resides. [Governor Rick Scotts] pledge to be accountable to Floridians for 'every tax dollar' has been irrevocably broken, she said back when Scott signed the bill in April approving the new university.

Rep. William L. Proctor, R-St. Augustine, outgoing chairman of the House Education Committee, told Sunshine State News his lingering concern is how the state public university system would continue to subsidize itself in the face of continuing budget cuts. He proposes a simple but controversial solution: Universities must be allowed to raise their tuitions more than state law currently permits them.

I think the issue of how were going to fund our major research universities remains to be determined, he said.

In April, Scott vetoed HB 7129, which would have enabled state universities which met certain academic and research excellence standards to apply to the Board of Governors for permission to increase their tuition above the statutory limit.

We ended up having to cut funding to our universities by about $300 million, said Proctor. Now, thats not unusual; those kinds of cuts are occurring in many states across the nation. But as a general rule these states are replacing lost revenue with greater tuition.

We have the 45th lowest tuition rate in the nation, so we are not in a high tuition situation, he points out.

As an example of the disparity between Floridas tuition rates and the national average, Proctor mentions the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU), a fellowship of 61 universities, public and private 61 in the United States, two in Canada. The University of Florida (UF) is the only one in the Sunshine State to have been admitted.

UFs freshman tuition rate is $5,626, says Proctor, referring to what he says are last years numbers. The average tuition for members of the Association is $10,600, and the highest (the University of Pittsburgh) is $16,500. So our major flagship university, the only AAU member we have, has the lowest tuition in the Association. Thats how far back we are. So the first thing we have to do is get our tuitions up to the national average.

If the Legislature does not wish to raise tuition for all degree programs, Proctor suggests it might consider doing so only for those which cost the state the most: STEM fields --i.e., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

I think the production of STEM degrees is going to be an issue because they are the most expensive degrees to pursue, he says. So one option is to price those programs separately. But if you do that, making the tuition sufficiently steep, you might discourage people from pursuing them.

Proctors concerns for the marketability of state degree programs mirror those of Gov. Scott.

I dont think our universities can all be as broadly based as some would like them to be, he predicts. I think were going to have to have a sharper focus on our programs and concentrate our resources on critical research areas. And I think weve got some prime opportunities. Im impressed with whats happening in the Orlando area, in medicine. The magnetic lab at [Florida State University] certainly has great potential.

Elected to the House in 2004 and term-limited, Proctor is retiring from politics in November, but will continue serving as chancellor of the privately owned Flagler College in St. Augustine. The 79-year-old, who has dedicated the last 50 years of his life to the education sector, warns that his successors in office can ill afford to pass up the opportunities the present situation affords them.

This last recession has proven to us that we cannot continue to rely on agriculture, tourism, and real estate as a basis for our economy. We need to build another dimension in that economy thats related to the quality of our research, he insists. And this is not an original idea. Its happening all over the world. People the world over are recognizing this.

We need to increase our funding levels or the best and brightest of our state programs will be attracted away, he cautions."And once our institutions erode, they will take a long time to restore.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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