The average freshman entering the University of Florida this fall had a high school GPA of 4.18 and an SAT score of 1293. That's an admissions standard that likely would have excluded many of the lawmakers and governors who are responsible for it. But the increasing exclusivity of public universities is only one of the deleterious effects of their prolonged impoverishment, and legislative leaders are still offering neither a solution nor an apology.
The fiscal backdrop is chilling. On Friday, Gov. Charlie Crist took the first step toward plugging a $1.8-billion hole in this year's state budget, asking to tap reserves for $672-million. His request comes on top of the $6-billion the Legislature already had cut for this year and doesn't reflect the $3.5-billion shortfall now projected for next year. A state that continues to grow in population, which means more high school seniors looking for a university education, has now lost revenue three consecutive years.
The impacts extend well beyond UF, which has endured $100-million in budget cuts over the past 18 months. At Florida State University, which has cut $41-million, the incoming freshman class has been reduced from 6,326 last year to 5,053 this year. The average SAT score is 1261. The University of South Florida, which has lost $35.6-million, has frozen enrollment on its main campus.
Based on preliminary enrollment figures reported by the Tampa Tribune, these universities are also losing African-American students in their fall freshman class: a 27 percent drop at UF, 15 percent at FSU and 23 percent at USF. To its credit, the historically black Florida A&M University has grown its freshman class by 23 percent.
The university system, which ranks last in the nation in faculty-to-student ratio and has its lowest per-student state funding in two decades, is in a financial free fall. But lawmakers don't seem to make the connection with their plodding approach to an unprecedented budgetary crisis. House Policy and Budget Committee Chairman Ray Sansom, who is line to be House speaker, seems unperturbed.
"No one is in a panic mode," Sansom said of the forecasted $3.5-billion shortfall. "We'll deal with these issues one fiscal year at a time."
If this were an ordinary financial storm, Florida universities might continue to get by with a few extra sandbags stacked against their levees. But this is Category 5 territory, and the same-old "one fiscal year at a time" narrow-minded budget-cutting mantra is inviting higher-education disaster.