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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Higher ed task force talks funding, efficiency among state's 11 universities



 How is Florida's state university system doing, how is it funded, and how can it be improved? 

Those questions formed the undercurrent of the first working meeting of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Higher Ed Reform -- set up by Gov. Rick Scott after he vetoed a bill that would have allowed certain "preeminent" universities the power to charge unlimited tuition.

Tuition was a top topic, but the group heard about a whole lot of other issues in the current higher education landscape, too, including: efforts to differentiate the state's 11 universities, ways to avoid duplication, a renewed focus on economic development, moving toward performance-based funding, and the political pressure that swirls around it all.

(One funny remark about that political dance came amid a discussion about universities seeking new degree programs that there may not be a need for -- i.e., last year's dental school rush:  "I always equate these things to raising children," said task force member Joseph Caruncho, who also sits on the Board of Governors. It's better "when you set the rules up front." 

"Unfortunately," responded state university system Chancellor Frank Brogan, "in this state we just say 'Go ask your mother,' and it's the Legislature.")

Much of the meeting was a recap for those who follow higher ed in Florida -- starting with a presentation on Florida's economic projections and then largely taken up by an overview by Brogan on the system's history, current report card and plans.

A few take-aways: 

  • There are two main philosophies when it comes to funding state universities: that they are largely an investment in the public good and should be funded accordingly, or that they are more for individuals' private benefit and funding should perhaps be more the responsibility of the student.
  • For the first time, the funding scale has tipped so that students pay more of the share of their education than the state does. In the past, the state consistently paid 75 percent of that, while the student kicked in the rest, but five years of budget cuts in a row with subsequent tuition hikes has changed that.
  • Even as the state university system's budget has been cut by a total of about 50 percent in the past five years, enrollment has continued to grow 2 to 3 percent each year.

How should the university system be reformed to be more effective and efficient? That's a decision to be made at a later date. But Brogan signaled that funding the system at an adequate level may not be that difficult, once its "aligned" correctly.

"I think people might be surprised that it is not the huge eye-popping numbers that they think of," Brogan said, bringing up the $1 billion that was just put back into K-12 education. "If whatever money we can get we can target specifically for the greatest return on investment, I don't think we're going to be looking for those kinds of numbers."

What the universities will be looking for is more performance-based funding, Brogan said -- giving money to universities based on the quality of the product they offer versus simply based on enrollment. A bill signed by Scott this year kick-started that effort, providing $15 million to no more than four universities who have systems in place to increase production in certain STEM degree areas.

The task force meets again at the end of June in St. Petersburg. Before that, Brogan invited them to the big Board of Governors meeting coming up next week in Orlando, where the board will review universities' work-plans and consider requests for tuition hikes

[Last modified: Monday, June 11, 2012 4:32pm]


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