At least credit former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux for being half-right: Tuition at Florida's public universities is too low. But so is the state's direct support. The hard fact that no one in Tallahassee's majority party seems willing to acknowledge is that the state, not just students, must invest more in higher education if Florida's universities are ever going to rank among the nation's best and help diversify the economy.
LeMieux, seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012, made his remarks last Sunday on Political Connections, a weekly television show produced by the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9. "If we're going to create great jobs in this state, we need better education," LeMieux said, adding: "It requires money, and this is a controversial thing to say … tuition at our universities is way too low." In fact, it's 45th lowest in the nation, the College Board reported last week.
But also too low is the state's contribution to universities, down 27 percent during this recession. The upshot of such disinvestment by taxpayers: Florida's four largest universities now spend far less on students than similar-sized counterparts across the Southeast — particularly those with national reputations and higher aspirations.
For example, taxpayers in North Carolina in 2009-10 sent almost as much money to Chapel Hill to support the well-regarded University of North Carolina, $11,300 per student, as this state spends in tax and tuition dollars combined at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Add tuition dollars and UNC-Chapel Hill spent 70 percent more per student — nearly $19,500 — than the University of Florida's $11,500. To be sure, students paid more to attend UNC: $8,200 average tuition and fees compared with UF's $4,800. But at both institutions, students contributed 42 percent of costs, based on the data the institutions submitted to their accreditation agency, the Southern Regional Education Board.
The spending is even more depressingly low at the Universities of South Florida and Central Florida, where per-student spending was just $9,500 and $8,730, respectively. The result is all too clear to those on campuses: bigger classes, more online classes, temporary faculty members, and salaries that lag behind other institutions such as UNC that have far more resources at their disposal to lure top-flight faculty — the lifeblood of any academic institution.
Yet UF, USF and UCF are three of the 11 state universities that Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature claim will lead the state's drive to diversify the economy — even as they appear poised to strip more resources from them.
Facing another $2 billion budget gap in 2012-13 and unwilling to consider new revenue sources, Scott last week launched a review of the state higher education system, intimating he questions why universities cost as much as they do even in cheapskate Florida. Earlier this month, the governor suggested universities weren't correctly channeling resources, saying on a radio talk show that the state doesn't need any more anthropology majors. And he's asked for a survey of which college majors get the best-paying jobs. It's little more than an effort to apply the same bottom-line measurements to higher education that Scott used to wring profits out of private hospitals.
The governor frequently claims his goal is to provide the best higher education in the nation. But the governor has yet to define that, other than to suggest universities need to expand science, technology and math degrees. The Legislature cannot allow Scott to fuse a solution for improving STEM education with a mission to cut spending elsewhere. If all Republicans do in the coming legislative session is reallocate measly resources in the name of economic development, the state will only lose more ground academically.
Florida universities need more investment, not less. And they need state leaders who understand that the best education is never the cheapest.