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News Clips 02/11/2013
EDITORIAL: Goal for Fla. lawmakers: Aim higher on education
Source: Orlando Sentinel, 02/10/13
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If Florida's 12 public universities were students, they might be considered underachievers. Only one, the University of Florida, cracks the nation's top 50.
Yet high-quality higher education in Florida is essential to turn out the talent that will attract investment, create high-wage jobs, and build a better economy and future for the Sunshine State. And state leaders, who have neglected this imperative for years, finally seem ready to give it the attention it needs.
Here are some of the issues lawmakers must confront in their upcoming session if they're serious about improving the quality of the state's universities — colleges, too — while keeping costs for students under control:
State funding: Lawmakers have slashed annual funding for universities by hundreds of millions of dollars since 2008. The universities have made up the difference by raising their tuitions up to 15 percent a year.
Lawmakers cut $300 million for universities last year but promised to restore the money this year. That vow should be their starting point as they draft their next budget.
Tuition: Florida's public universities charge less than their counterparts in most other states, but the 15 percent tuition hikes have squeezed families that didn't budget for them. The timing — amid the Great Recession — couldn't have been worse.
Universities have offered to suspend increases next year in return for another $118 million. This is definitely an offer worth pursuing for lawmakers.
Student debt: Higher tuition is one of the factors driving up the debt owed by Florida's students. The average indebted graduate is now carrying a load of more than $21,000, a drag on his or her own financial independence as well as the broader state economy.
This worrying trend underscores the need to restrain tuition increases. It also argues for gradually paring back merit-based scholarships and redirecting the savings into need-based aid.
Accountability: Universities have proposed tying some of their state funding to performance, including what share of their students graduate. It's about time; figures released in 2012 showed only five universities were graduating at least half their students within six years. This is a scandal.
Other performance measures might also make sense, though lawmakers should be wary of simplistic metrics.
Variability: There's little difference in tuitions at Florida universities, yet big differences among them in reputations and resources. Florida Gulf Coast University just isn't the equal of the University of Florida.
We supported Gov. Rick Scott's veto last year of a bill to lift any limits on tuition at the University of Florida or Florida State University. But it makes sense for research universities with national reputations to charge more than regional schools with modest missions.
If Florida wants the "world-class universities" that Scott has promised, he and lawmakers will need to invest the effort and the dollars to make it happen.