Research, high-skill degrees and affordability among Florida's higher ed goals, Board of Governors chair says
LAKELAND — Efforts to boost research, guide college students to high-skilled jobs and make degrees more affordable have seen success, but Florida universities can do much more, the chair of the state’s higher education board said Thursday.
In his second State of the System address, Chair Tom Kuntz lauded the university system’s progress since the Board of Governors first met in 2003.
“We have come a long way from being viewed as a university system without a plan to one that other systems across the country seek to emulate,” he said to higher ed leaders gathered at Florida Polytechnic University. He attributed that growth to strategic plans, performance-based funding and other measurements that have kept universities focused on incentives and improvements.
And he outlined what he wants to see next.
Meeting workforce needs
The state’s highest priority, Kuntz said, is aligning degree programs to match its workforce needs, particularly for high-skill fields like science, technology, engineering and math.
Because of performance funding that rewards universities that offer such programs, Kuntz said, STEM degrees have grown 31 percent, while non-STEM bachelor’s degrees have grown just 5 percent — “a major step in the right direction.”
He also praised university efforts to match students with job and internship opportunities. Reaching out to the business community in particular will help universities target employment needs, he said. The board plans a business-centric summit to learn more about what employers want to see in business graduates.
“While it’s up to the students to get the job,” Kuntz said, “we can do everything in our power to make sure they’ve got the skills to hit the ground running and open the door to as many job opportunities as possible.”
Only last year did conversations begin about making Florida universities more competitive in research, Kuntz said.
“To be a premier system, our faculty must engage in meaningful research that leads to solving real-world challenges on a much larger scale than we are currently doing,” he said.
That means recruiting top researchers and giving them the tools they need. To do that, the Board is requesting a serious investment from the state — $80 million to hire researchers and $15 million for research infrastructure.
“It’s essential to secure funding for these critical initiatives if we’re going to elevate our game,” Kuntz said.
Promoting access for all
Access and affordability, already popular topics among legislators this year, are also a top priority, Kuntz said. More than 800,000 students are enrolled in the Florida College System, he said, and many of them want to continue their education at a state university,
“Our goal is to make it as simple as possible for them to navigate the university system and succeed,” he said.
To do that, the university system has decided it needs to make the academic and cultural transfer to a university easier, streamline the admissions process, and work on understanding why some associate students don’t continue on to universities, even if accepted.
Also important is the push to get students out the door with a degree in four years, minimizing their debt burden.
Kuntz expressed support for Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to expand Bright Futures merit scholarships so that they cover summer classes. He also said planned mental health and campus safety investments are critical to keeping students healthy and on track to succeed.
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” Chancellor Marshall Criser III said when Kuntz finished. “I’m tempted just to say, ‘Ditto.’”