Dear Gov. Rick Scott:
Congratulations on your election to the executive leadership of a great state — though one that is clearly in severe financial distress. No doubt your focus on repairing Florida's economy, starting with the state's budget, was a major factor in your election by the people of Florida.
As you know, one of the major elements of the state budget is higher education, and the number of Floridians seeking higher education is expected to continue to increase for the foreseeable future. Like most Southern states, and unlike the states of the Northeast and Midwest, Florida's strategy for providing access to higher education focuses primarily on its public institutions. This is a narrowly conceived and needlessly expensive strategy.
Let me explain: To provide a seat to a student in one of the state university system institutions the state pays, on average, over $13,000 per seat per year. If the same Florida student attends a private college or university in Florida, state support is reduced to roughly $2,400 per student (this support is called the Florida Resident Access Grant — FRAG — and goes to the student, not the school. This is, as you will immediately recognize, the charter-school principle). Last year the private (nonprofit) colleges in Florida awarded 33 percent of the undergraduate degrees, 40 percent of the master's degrees, 36 percent of the doctoral and 53 percent of the professional degrees in our state.
This means that if the 28 private colleges in Florida enrolled 1,000 more Floridians (either because they added seats or because they replaced out-of-state students with students from Florida), the state would save $300 million a year over having those students attend the state's public universities.
The smart approach to this problem is not to continue to increase the capacity at Florida's already mammoth, overburdened state universities (because the seats are too expensive), nor to continue to foster the essentially unregulated evolution of "state colleges" from community colleges (because the graduation rates are scandalously low). For-profit colleges have their place in American higher education, but their low graduation rates and student debt are already rightly the target of congressional investigation.
Rather, the better investment is for Florida to find ways to allow the private (but nonprofit) sector colleges to compete more favorably against the heavily subsidized public institutions, and thereby save the state an enormous amount of money. If the FRAG were increased to $5,000, for example, at 1,000 students per private institution, the state would still save nearly $240 million a year. And that is just a start. Students at private colleges and universities graduate at a much higher rate and in less time than students at publics do, which would compound the savings.
My plan does not propose that Florida does not need an excellent public university system, but simply that the state's resources can go a lot further, and Florida students would be better served, by a spending strategy that makes the option to attend private college more affordable. In Minnesota, which has one of the finest public universities in the country, in-state students who attend private colleges can receive up to $11,500 from the state, depending on their financial need. Those students still cost the state less than they would at the University of Minnesota.
Governor, I support your interest in utilizing the private sector as an alternative to more expensive state programs. At Eckerd College, we outsource our food service, physical plant support, landscaping, bookstore and other functions because we believe we get better services at lower costs. The private colleges of Florida can provide a way to save the state money and improve the options and outcomes for Florida's students.
Donald R. Eastman III