In a year when colleges are laying off staff and freezing enrollment, University of South Florida officials are strongly lobbying the Legislature for $15-million to kick-start a large new campus in Lakeland.
With a price tag of up to $200-million, the branch campus is slated to serve an eventual population that would make it larger than four of the state's 11 four-year universities.
But is the demand really there?
USF officials have regularly cited enrollment figures that count some students more than once and count others who are rarely there to justify construction of the campus, their own records show.
In speeches and news releases, officials claim they have outgrown the current Lakeland campus, which serves about 1,500 students, and can fill a new one with 16,000 students by 2020.
But if the last decade is any indication, that projection may not be realistic. Over the past 10 years, the campus grew its regularly attending student body at a healthy 7.6 percent per year. If that pace continued, 16,000 students wouldn't call the Lakeland branch home until 2043.
USF officials stand by their estimates, saying they accurately reflect how many students use campus services, albeit infrequently.
One of USF's own top administrators, however, described these numbers as "duplicative" and a way to bolster the push for a new campus.
"They help them make the case they want to make," said Michael Moore, a USF associate vice president who tracks enrollment at the school's main Tampa campus and its satellites in Lakeland, St. Petersburg and Sarasota.
USF president Judy Genshaft, who stands by the numbers, said the region needs a larger Lakeland campus to improve access to higher education. The new campus would be the first polytechnic school in Florida, offering fields of study in engineering, biotech and agriculture. The projected enrollment is large, she said, because the campus would create additional demand.
"It can bring in people from all over Florida," Genshaft said.
Skeptics characterize this push for a larger campus as the case of an ambitious university circumventing system oversight for its own gain — the type of one-upmanship that has roiled higher education in Florida for decades.
John Dasburg, a member of the governing board for Florida's 11 universities, said it makes no sense to build such a large campus when universities facing millions in budget shortfalls (USF included) are freezing enrollment and cutting faculty.
To refer to the Lakeland proposal as a branch campus "is the height of political cynicism," Dasburg said. "It's a university,'' he insisted, calling the situation "nothing short of outrageous,'' given the state's dire financial straits.
"I refuse to call it a (branch) campus,'' he said. "This is another example of a totally politicized university system."
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Last month, Genshaft flew by private plane to Tallahassee to meet with Gov. Charlie Crist. Her pitch: USF needs $15-million this year or it could lose donated land for the campus.
It's a tough sell in a year when universities have already slashed more than $100-million and stand to lose millions more in the budget year to come. Crist vetoed money for USF Lakeland last year when the budget outlook was growing grim — a pattern that persists today, with lawmakers looking to trim more than $3.2-billion in general revenue for 2008-09.
During Genshaft's visit, however, Crist told her he supports this year's request.
"I told her if they could convince the members of the Legislature in difficult times, and there was money for it, I would support it," Crist said last week.
USF officials rejoiced.
But what need the campus will satisfy is unclear, considering that a main justification for the large branch was the supposedly surging enrollment in Lakeland.
During a Nov. 21, 2002, meeting, USF's Board of Trustees heard about this sudden influx from Preston Mercer, then-chief executive of the Lakeland campus, which shares space with Polk Community College.
While other nearby colleges grew no more than 40 percent from 1999 to 2002, USF Lakeland's "head count" was up 82 percent, Mercer said.
Yet a much lower "head count" was released this month to the Times by Moore, a university associate vice president. These numbers showed that during the three-year period, total students rose 42 percent to 872. Impressive, but more in line with other local colleges — and half what Mercer claimed.
The higher counts played an important role in that 2002 meeting. The board approved the search for a new campus site that could hold all the students Mercer talked about. Genshaft congratulated Mercer: "It's exciting to see the type of progress that USF Lakeland has made."
In the next few years — as they sought state and local money to pay for this new campus — USF officials continued to cite the higher numbers in Lakeland.
"BURSTING AT THE SEAMS!" read a June 6, 2003, USF news release. Soaring enrollment meant there was a "need for a new, primary, comprehensive campus," the release said.
Kevin Calkins, director of institutional research and planning at USF Lakeland, said the higher figures are appropriate and not misleading.
"It truly is the total number of students we are serving," he said.
By contrast, Moore's head counts ignore students who might use the Lakeland campus but designate a different USF site as their primary campus, he said.
For example, USF Lakeland's "home campus" head count last fall was 1,143 students, a figure Moore prefers. Calkins counted 1,612 students attending a class at one time or another.
Moore said Calkins' method duplicated some students. For instance, it will count twice a student attending the main Tampa campus and Lakeland.
Moore said he believes that when he arrived at USF three years ago, administrators were also getting higher numbers by counting semesters, so that if a student enrolled in fall and spring, they would be counted twice.
Also included in Calkins' "students served" figure are the roughly 16 percent of USF Lakeland students who take their courses online.
But would those students need classrooms?
"Well, it requires students coming here to take tests and meet with professors," Calkins said.
Lakeland also is the type of branch that draws part-time students who are older and juggling school with work.
But while the National Center for Education Statistics equates a part-time student as 60 percent of a full-time student, USF counts them equally.
"They require the same level of services," said Marshall Goodman, the CEO and vice president of the USF Lakeland campus.
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Take away the higher head count, and the case for a new campus doesn't look so convincing, said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the higher education facilities appropriations committee.
"It would appear as if the Lakeland facility is a long way from being warranted," King said. "In a time when money is tight, you would think we would take a more conservative approach."
But Bill Edmonds, spokesman for the Board of Governors, which oversees the 11 universities, said it's ridiculous to suggest it would take 35 years to reach 16,000 enrollment.
"You could put a campus on an island and you'd get students flocking to it," he said.
The board in recent months has voted to freeze freshman enrollments and ordered universities to come up with plans to shrink overall enrollment and other costs in response to recent budget reductions.
Still, the board recently included the $15-million for USF Lakeland on a list to lawmakers of requested construction projects. That was right around the time it told universities to plan for more cutbacks.
"By voting in favor of funding the Lakeland university, we violated our own decision to freeze universities," Dasburg said. "What's going on? It's my opinion, the board is doing more harm than good."
But the growth model Florida has used in the past won't work in the future unless the state wants megacampuses like Ohio State University, Edmonds said. The system needs larger branches to accommodate growth and students who can't afford to leave their home counties for school, he said.
"For that reason, we need more geographic representation around the state," Edmonds said.
Supporters of the campus say the $15-million is an investment that extends beyond higher education, exactly what lawmakers and Crist have advocated in their push for "jump-starting" Florida's flagging economy.
"In tough economic times, that is where you focus because it generates economic development," said Rep. Seth McKeel of Lakeland. "It creates jobs."