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Charles B. Reed

Florida lacks strong central plan for higher ed

Last week, Charles B. Reed addressed the Florida Council of 100, a group of business leaders, on the future of higher education in Florida. Here are those remarks, adapted and condensed for publication.

I was chancellor of the State University System of Florida from 1986 to 1998. I have been chancellor of the California State University system since 1998. That's a long time spent as chancellor. • Fifteen years ago, I was part of the Business-Higher Education Partnership group that put out a landmark report on higher education in Florida called "The Emerging Catastrophe and How to Prevent It." The report detailed an expected surge in enrollment and how the system was being underfunded at a critical time. It also called for more efficiency and less duplication to create a more effective system.

If I had to write that report today, I'd call it "A Splintered System." There is no cohesive mission or commitment holding it together. California doesn't have a perfect higher education system either. But here's what we do have in California:

1. A central plan;

2. A focus on economic and workforce development;

3. A commitment to the common good.

In Florida, we are lacking a strong central plan or sense of purpose in higher education. In California we have a very clear master plan for higher education that just celebrated its 50th year. It divided our higher educational system into three distinct segments:

• University of California, graduate institutions focused on research;

• California State University, master's-level institutions focused on providing the baccalaureate degree and promoting workforce preparation;

• California Community, two-year colleges focused on access and technical training.

In California, the UC and CSU boards operate with great flexibility as corporate boards. There has not been political intrusion. But here in Florida there has been little to no leadership at the state level in guiding Florida's universities to a common mission. Everyone wants law schools, medical schools and graduate programs because they are prestigious. So now, schools are creating more grad programs at the expense of undergraduate programs — with the dollars generated by undergraduate enrollment. These low-enrollment duplicative graduate programs have not served the state well. It's turned into what the local chamber wants, not what the state needs.

You can add to that the most recent debate about USF Poly in Lakeland becoming an independent institution. That's no place for a polytechnic university. That's no Silicon Valley. California has only two polytechnics for 38 million people — and we have Silicon Valley.

On the other hand, in Florida you also have community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees. This has resulted in "degree creep" — and it has shortchanged the state in terms of workforce development programs, like allied health and occupational/technical programs. It has now become a race to see who can become a four-year college.

There's no sense of mission because it's every institution for itself. And there's no incentive for them to act in Florida's best interests.

We know employers want students who can write proficiently, think critically and will be a dynamic addition to the workforce. We know employers want students who can work in teams, use technology, solve problems and speak more than one language.

We aim to produce as many STEM grads as possible. But we need the arts and humanities too. Those students are the ones businesses look to for their creativity and problem-solving skills.

And we know if Florida employers can't find these same qualities in Florida graduates, they'll hire from elsewhere. That's why Florida lawmakers and policymakers have to understand the need for supporting higher education and critical skill development.

Higher education has the ability to lift up the entire society through economic growth, higher tax revenues and greater community participation. Policymakers and the public need to understand that support for public universities equates to long-term benefits for society. Then of course there are the individual benefits. What about that person who is given the ability to earn a degree and then goes on to change the world?

In California, the Legislature doesn't make regional decisions about universities; it makes state decisions. In Florida, what has been the outcome since the Board of Regents was dissolved? Runaway presidential salaries. Wasteful spending on duplicative programs. Two state medical schools have since grown to five.

Florida's Board of Governors needs to be able to do its job, which is to look after the universities. Its role needs to be respected, apart from the governor or the Legislature.

The Florida Legislature and governor's philosophy has been: "Higher education is a personal good — people who will benefit should pay more." So tuition goes up, and it prices out people at the low-income, high-talent level who would benefit most from higher education. That gets to my last issue — financial aid.

Florida's financial aid system is upside-down. Bright Futures provides the most aid to people who need it the least. People who get Bright Futures tend to be kids who have enriched education, travel a lot and do well on tests. The aid disproportionately goes to wealthy families.

So it has become more than just a political issue. This is a civil rights and moral issue. Florida can't afford to carry out this program anymore, certainly not for its upper-income students. If Florida continues in the current direction, it does so at its own peril. Because when the higher education system splinters to pieces, the future workforce and the economy will follow.

Florida lacks strong central plan for higher ed 11/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 11, 2011 7:06pm]
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