The three-ring circus of politicians, higher education and declining tax revenues in Florida is certainly entertaining, but it obscures the real issues of quality and access and further diminishes the confidence of taxpayers that their dollars will be used effectively. Consider:
• The absence of a statewide strategy and an effective coordinating body for higher education — since the demise of the Board of Regents — has been destructive of both public confidence and efficient allocation of tax dollars. Florida has spent more money on studies of how to improve the higher education system — many of them, including the recent Pappas Report and the 2004 Florida Council of 100 Report, quite good — than it has on putting those plans into effect. The current "forums" being sponsored by a few elected officials and the Florida Chambers of Commerce are a wholly unnecessary exercise. There are already plenty of good plans lying around; choose one!
• Florida's higher education landscape is like the Wild West, with powerful politicians making self-serving decisions about where new campuses will go and community colleges abandoning their original mission to now become four-year schools. Most universities are supporting much more research and graduate programs than Florida will ever need. The dirty little secret in American higher education is that the focus on graduate education is what the professors want, but high-quality undergraduate education is what the public and the states need.
• The addition of three public medical schools to the state university system since 2001 is probably the most egregious example of Florida's lack of effective governance and rational use of public dollars. This enormously expensive investment will almost certainly not produce many more doctors for Florida (doctors tend to locate where they do their residencies, not where they go to medical school), and is estimated to cost the equivalent of start-up costs for three to five universities (in a state that is turning away qualified applicants for lack of space).
• The lottery program was sold to Floridians as a way to raise additional dollars for education, but it is now used as a national model for how not to run a lottery to support education. The taxpayer gets little relief from the lottery, and the (diminishing) dollars go into the general fund.
• Bright Futures has become an entitlement program the state can neither afford nor rescind, because it has taught Floridians the wrong lesson: that higher education, like K-12, should be free. No state can afford that. Over half the recipients of Bright Futures are students with no need of financial aid, while Florida's support of need-based scholarships ranks near the bottom nationally.
• The most efficient use of higher education dollars is the Florida Resident Access Grant, or FRAG, which provides a $2,900 scholarship to Floridians who study full-time at private (nonprofit) colleges. That is much cheaper than the average cost to the state of $12,000 for supporting the same student at a public college. The Florida Council of 100 report of 2004 showed that the return on investment of state dollars going to private colleges was more than five times the return on investment for public colleges and universities. Over a third of Florida's college students go to in-state private colleges; they are generally poorer and proportionately more minority than students at public colleges and universities. While public support for their college studies requires less than 25 percent of that required for students at public schools, the FRAG was threatened by the governor with elimination for new students last year; wiser heads in the Legislature kept the program running.
There are really two key questions for Florida higher education policy: How bad is it going to have to be for Florida to wake up and create a rational, powerful, nonpolitical governance system? And what governor is going to be courageous enough to lead that badly needed change?
Until that time, the broken governance system for higher education in Florida will continue to waste public money and lose public confidence.
Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg.