Sunday, February 18, 2018
Education

At universities, the real bargain is excellence, not tuition

We had run out to Target in Gainesville to pick up the last few items our older son, Noah, needed for college.

We bought an extension cord and a desk lamp, passing the toy aisle where not that long ago we were buying Legos.

After lunch at Chipotle and hugs in the parking lot, Noah drove off toward his dorm, while my wife, Laura, and I headed back to Interstate 75 and home.

Of all our bittersweet moments as parents, this was the bitterest and sweetest, hands down: losing our boy, but to a good school.

Of course, it would have been sweeter if the school were just a little bit better.

As you might have heard, the University of Florida is an incredible bargain.

U.S. News and World Report — which, like it or not, has become the last word on this topic — gives Florida the not-bad ranking of 17th best public university in the country.

Meanwhile, the school's annual tuition (including fees for items such as access to gyms) comes to $5,656 for in-state students. That's less than half the cost of many states' flagship universities and a pittance to compared to comparable private schools, where tuition and fees typically exceed $40,000 per year.

Plus, in Florida, parents can take advantage of generous and widely available Bright Futures scholarships and the Florida Prepaid program, which allowed our family — thank you, Grandfather Booth! — to lock in the 1995 four-year tuition price of $10,400.

It's a great thing to keep quality eduction within the reach of so many residents. It's great that our state has worked so hard to control generally out-of-control college costs, great that UF has avoided the arms race in providing the sumptuous accommodations that have driven up the price of education at many schools. No kid needs a cafeteria worker on hand to cook them locally sourced omelets to order, which I actually witnessed on a visit to a private school.

The problem is, this politically driven cost-consciousness comes with its own cost: declining quality.

Yes, there have been some significant tuition increases at UF in recent years. The school is also due to receive $15 million in each of the next five years as one of the state's "preeminent universities."

But that hardly makes up for the loss of $200 million in state appropriations since 2007. And earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott made a pandering (and, thankfully, unsuccessful) attempt to block a meager 1.7 percent cost-of-living tuition increase, which he labeled as a "tax increase."

That kind of thinking has forced UF and other state schools to rely more and more on part-time and adjunct professors and to allow the school's ranking among public universities to slip since 2006 from 13th place.

It will take more money, more tuition, to meet the state's goal of bringing UF into the top 10, alongside schools such as the University of North Carolina. People there pay a little more, but in return get a top-flight education, which sounds like a real bargain.

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