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Board of Governors Studying Plan for Higher Education Reform

November 10, 2011 - 6:00pm

At the urging of Gov. Rick Scott, the governing board for the State University System is considering a plan to track performance of universities, reward good professors and encourage more graduates in science, technology, engineering and math.

The plan, presented by a group made up primarily of university presidents to the State University System Board of Governors on Thursday in Boca Raton, would use job placement, licensure exam rates, graduation and retention rates, as well as the number of patents and research grants awarded to judge the performance of the 11 state universities.

But along with this willingness to embrace greater accountability came a plea from university presidents to use market-rate tuition and grant them greater flexibility over how tuition dollars are spent.

The board will spend two months studying the plan and soliciting input from stakeholders, with more decisive action expected at the next meeting in January -- in time for the 2012 legislative session. Some of the ideas in the plan, such as more flexibility to set tuition, could only be determined by the Legislature.

Prompted by a similar effort by Gov. Rick Perry in Texas, Scott has focused on reforming higher education, pushing universities to take a closer look at whether they are graduating students who are prepared for jobs. He has also shown an interest in linking state funding for universities to performance.

The presidents' proposal was the first formal response from the state university system. Eric Barron, Florida State University president, has previously done his own analysis of what Florida could do to make changes in higher education.

The state university system's plan indicates a willingness to go along with tracking performance through an array of measures from graduation rates to job placement, including starting salaries of graduates, to patents and licenses.

Scott has particularly emphasized making sure universities are offering degrees that will result in jobs, saying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees should be emphasized over liberal arts.

The proposal included ideas for graduating more STEM students, such as offering lower tuition for those degrees, loan forgiveness, career training programs during college and graduation grants.

Several presidents warn that not all universities would perform well through the suggested performance-rating system. New College, for instance, a public liberal arts school in Sarasota, would rank very poorly if judged by patents and licenses because it isn't a research university.

One thing university presidents are making clear that they are not willing to do is give up control over their budgets, including decisions such as tenure, class sizes and degree offerings.

In fact, universities are hoping the Legislature will give them more control over things like tuition. Currently, universities face a strict limit of 15 percent increases each year on how much they increase tuition.

Market-rate tuition is currently allowed only for certain online and continuing education courses. Most of the degree programs that use market-rate tuition raised their tuition rates as a result, but a few decreased them.

The plan also suggests eliminating restrictions on how state funding and tuition is spent, such as the requirement that 30 percent of all dollars generated from tuition increases go toward need-based financial aid.

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