Perhaps state Sen. Joe Negron is right that some state colleges are guilty of mission creep in rushing to offer four-year degree programs. But his solution — to strip authority from the Board of Education to approve new bachelor degree programs for state colleges and force them to reduce their tuition for those programs — is another example of bad higher education policy on the fly. More than 10 years after embarking on this experiment, it is time for a thoughtful assessment of how four-year degrees at state colleges are working. But Negron, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, would further politicize and diffuse higher education governance when what is needed is a common vision and more financial investment.
Negron added language to a Senate bill dealing with tuition increases that would prevent the Board of Education from approving more four-year degree programs at state colleges, formerly known as community colleges. A dozen years after St. Petersburg College first won the right to offer a limited number of bachelor's degrees, 24 colleges now have approval for 175 different degrees. Negron contends at least some of those programs have strayed from the Legislature's original intent that colleges would offer four-year degrees to meet workforce needs in their communities, such as in nursing or technology.
Colleges and universities are notorious for chasing financial incentives whenever the Legislature offers them, particularly because they are shortchanged on base funding. By offering upper-level classes, state colleges receive slightly higher state subsidies for those classes and can charge more tuition. At St. Petersburg College, for example, tuition for upper-level courses is about 10 percent more — though less than at the University of South Florida.
Negron wants to eliminate that incentive. He would force state colleges to charge the same tuition for both upper and lower-level work and strip $3.4 million from state colleges' four-year degree budgets to give to the University of Florida and Florida State University. He says more investment is needed there to build elite universities that compete with those in other states. But the answer is not to take from the colleges to give to two universities with powerful supporters in the Legislature.
Negron's singular focus on state college's offerings — without consideration of what needs they may be fulfilling or how they have increased higher education access — illustrates how Tallahassee micromanages education. Florida should be less concerned about where students are getting bachelor's degrees and more concerned with making those degrees accessible. Even as Tampa Bay has the University of South Florida, for example, St. Petersburg College has a niche that overwhelmingly serves working students over 25 years old. Last year it awarded 1,200 bachelor's degrees, mostly in fields like nursing, education or business.
Negron, R-Stuart, is right that Florida needs to invest more in state universities. But he should push for better coordination throughout the higher education system to eliminate duplication. The universities' Board of Governors should also have authority over state colleges, because the state's public school system is plenty of work for the Board of Education. Negron even could lead the charge among his Republican colleagues to forgo special interest tax breaks so that Florida collects the state revenue needed to adequately fund education, including higher education. Robbing from Peter to pay Paul while further politicizing the process only makes things worse.