December 4, 2012. Campus leaders launch new offensive to convince Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers that colleges play chief role in economic development and require investment.
By John Kennedy
With taxpayer support for universities steadily eroding, campus leaders are launching a new offensive to convince Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers that Florida schools play a key role in economic development and are worth renewed investment.
The campaign, dubbed “Aim Higher,” will be rolled out Wednesday by university presidents and student government association presidents, three months before the start of the legislative session to build a case for more dollars, said those familiar with the plan.
A spokeswoman for the State University System Board of Governors, Kim Wilmath, said the announcement will include a “candid discussion about the funding of higher education and the value that our universities deliver to the state and its economy.”
The move comes as university leaders continue to wrangle with Scott over tuition and classroom dollars. Scott signed into law this year a state budget that cut $300 million from Florida universities and he denounced tuition increases later granted by the board of governors.
University officials are seeking restoration of the budget cut – along with an allocation of an additional $118 million spread across the system, which now includes 12 universities, following the creation of the new Florida Polytechnic University, approved by Scott and the legislature last spring.
The $300 million reduction in taxpayer funding followed similar funding having tumbled 24 percent the preceding four years, heightening the focus on tuition.
While the average annual tuition to a Florida public university has spiked in recent years to $6,232 this fall, Florida’s cost ranks only 41st highest in the nation among public university systems.
Still, the Republican governor last week intensified the debate over higher education dollars.
He challenged Florida state colleges – formerly known as community colleges – to offer at least a handful of price-conscious, $10,000 bachelor’s degrees that could fit nicely into local workforce demands.
“My goal is that we really think about how we can reduce the overall cost of higher education,” Scott said in making the challenge, which several schools have said they will accept.
“Look, if you’re in business, your customer expects you to lower your prices every year,” Scott said. “Figure out efficient ways of doing things. We have the same expectations of our state colleges and our universities.”
While the $10,000 degree concept would trim $3,264 from the cost of an average, four-year degree from these colleges, a bachelor’s degree at any of Florida’s universities is likely to cost students at least $25,000.
But Roberto Martinez, vice president of the state Board of Education, has written Scott that the $10,000 degree “is not serious policy” and suggesting that the state provide more money if it wants an affordable, quality education.
The Aim Higher campaign also is crafted to send a message that while quality education costs money – it can also fire the state’s economy.
Officials clearly hope the theme will appeal to Scott.
University officials plan to showcase a board of governors’ report released in February that showed the system sparked almost $80 billion in economic impact – including direct, and indirect spending. More than 771,000 Florida-based jobs are also created by the system’s activities, with 58,000 faculty and staff at the schools.
“In an era of declining public funding for higher education, it is important for public policymakers to understand the economic contributions to society made by universities,” the report concluded.
University presidents from the state’s best-known schools, Bernard Machen at the University of Florida and Eric Barron from Florida State University, are expected to take part in Wednesday’s campaign unveiling, along with presidents from Florida A&M; University, the University of West Florida, University of North Florida, New College and the University of Central Florida.
Scott, though, has shown no signs of backing away from his earlier questioning of how Florida’s universities spend their money.
Last year, Scott questioned the value of some degrees – singling out anthropology for particular scorn. He made public the salaries of administrators, faculty and staff across the state university system, and demanded answers from university presidents about how degrees from their schools were preparing students for the job market.
He has pointed to average student debt in Florida, which has climbed to more than $21,000 in 2010, but remains below the national average of $25,250, according to the Project on Student Debt by the Institute for College Access and Success.
Scott echoed his concern when announcing last week’s tuition challenge.
“You should be able to work and go to school and not end up with debt,” Scott said. “If these degrees cost so much money, tuition is so high, that’s not going to happen.”