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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cutting higher ed is no way for Florida to attract business

From the Tampa Times Editorial Staff

A decade after Florida voters decided they wanted a centralized Board of Governors to oversee the state's public universities, Gov. Rick Scott's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Higher Education is poised to recommend to a recalcitrant Legislature to finally let it happen. But the task force's acquiescence on the other major issue facing higher education — diminishing state funding — is disappointing. The state can't keep expecting students to pay for most of the costs of a State University System vital to the entire state.

The governor created the task force earlier this year after vetoing a plan that would have allowed the University of Florida and Florida State University the autonomy to raise their tuitions as long as they met certain accountability measures. The universities' proposal was an understandable, if flawed, reaction to broken promises in Tallahassee, where the State University System has seen its spending slashed, including $300 million just this year. Even though state universities have raised tuition significantly in recent years, it's not been enough. Students in Florida now pay more than ever for a university education, but due to cuts in state spending less money is being spent to educate them.

Central to the task force's recommendations, which are expected to be delivered next month, would be for the Legislature to turn over budgeting authority to the Board of Governors in exchange for implementing performance-based funding mechanisms for each of the state's 12 universities. Such measures, for example, would include quality of research, academic rankings, and whether enough students were graduating into high-wage, high-skill, high-demand jobs.

It makes sense to have a single governing board shaping the missions and distinct identities of universities. And coordination from one governing board — as well as the power of the purse — would help build a unified system that minimizes duplication and avoids political travesties such as the unneeded Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland.

But when it comes to funding, the task force disappointed. The group calls for universities to have tuition matched to their national peers, but it gives the Legislature a pass. The working draft says, "In the absence of state support, the Legislature and Board of Governors, working together, should evaluate tuition strategies to compensate for state funding."

That's no way to fund a higher education system that Republican leaders say can help diversify the state's economy. Scott, incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford and incoming Senate President Don Gaetz need to look past short-term budget issues to make a long-term commitment to building a system Florida can be proud of. Universities are not simply vocational schools churning out graduates to meet the needs of the marketplace, and a bachelor's degree is not merely a meal ticket. A well-educated citizenry is a benefit both to the state and to the individual. Expecting both parties to pay their share is the smarter approach.

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