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'Florida Rising': State Universities a Model for Transparency, Cheap Tuition

June 5, 2013 - 6:00pm

Florida's State University System is a national model for cost-effectiveness, transparency, and accountability, but major improvements are needed in the areas of core curriculum, graduation rates, and speech codes, according to a report released Thursday.

The assessment, aptly titled Florida Rising, was prepared by the nonpartisan American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) with the assistance of the James Madison Institute (JMI), a free-market oriented think tank based in Tallahassee.

What we're very enthusiastic about is that Florida has built a very, very productive structure, Dr. Michael Poliakoff, the report's lead researcher, tells Sunshine State News. It's clear its trajectory has gone significantly upward, but it will need to be vigilant to continue its cost-control, its judiciousness in limiting tuition increases, in order to get to where it wants to be.

Florida Rising is the 11th in a series of profiles of state university systems, and Poliakoff is impressed by the extent to which Florida has led the nation in higher education reforms. For instance, the University of Florida (UF) has the lowest tuition rate of all the 62 members of the Association of American Universities.

"Florida has set a very, very good example for the rest of the nation in that it has recognized that is not acceptable to offset declining state appropriations by squeezing students for higher and higher tuition, Poliakoff says. We are in an era of 'the new normal,' and it is imperative for higher education to recognize that it has to look first and foremost at cost-effectiveness and new efficiency and look last at increasing the burden on students and families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Floridas universities are among the cheapest in the nation. The average annual in-state tuition (and fees) at a state college or university is $6,232 the 41st lowest state average in the country, while the national average is $8,655. Last month, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a budgetary provision that would have increased tuition by 3 percent.

Poliakoff also gave Florida's system high marks for transparency and accountability.

The State University System has been excellent at putting the data out in a clear and effective way on both the campus level and, most notably, the System level with its annual accountability report, he says, drawing particular attention to the candor with which the Board of Governors admits its deficiencies. This is by far the clearest and most public-friendly accountability report [in the nation] that I have yet seen.

But all is not well. State universities' graduation rates remain mediocre, though comparable to trends in other states. Only 42 percent of Florida graduates earn their four-year degrees within four years, and only 66 percent earn those degrees within six years.

But we are pleased that in Florida a lot of attention is being paid to this, Poliakoff notes, citing recent legislation passed to encourage timely completion of degrees. For example, since 2009 state universities now charge an excess credit hour surcharge for coursework taken above and beyond the required credit hours, and Bright Futures scholarship recipients must now reimburse the state for courses dropped or withdrawn from. And the reforms seem to be having some effect: 64 percent of state university graduates in 20112012completed their degrees without excess credit hours.

Turning to the curriculum offered in state universities, Poliakoff says the Board of Governors should implement statewide requirements in economic and American historical literacy.

It's civically disempowering for students to leave college without a good understanding of how the free institutions of this country work or, at times, don't work as well as they should, and need to be strengthened, he insists. He says it's also important that schools beef-up their foreign language requirements, to better enable students to compete in an increasingly diverse job market. (He says only one state school, Florida State University, requires its students to have intermediate proficiency in a foreign language as a graduation requirement.)

Finally, the report calls attention to the draconian speech codes that prevail on most Florida campuses, something SSN reported on back in November.

State University System Chancellor Frank T. Brogan welcomed the release of Poliakoff's analysis.

"We are extremely gratified that this report distinguishes our system as a national leader in higher education. Following years of budgetary constraints, our universities have emerged stronger and more focused than ever and are making great strides toward national prominence," Brogan said in a statement. "This report validates the Board of Governors' priorities of improving student success, enhancing online learning, and balancing access, quality and affordability -- all of which contribute to my long-stated goal of ensuring Florida has the most accountable university system in America."

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.

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