One thousand accomplished young men and women who expected to enter the University of Florida this fall will be denied their educational destiny, and what makes this injustice all the more disturbing is that most lawmakers won't even accept responsibility. The politicians blame a drop in taxable sales or not enough gambling, as though they are powerless to protect higher education.
What they really lack is basic resolve. They lack the same commitment and sacrifice that typifies the tens of thousands of families and students who find a way, financially, to make their dreams possible. Now some of those same students are being told the door is shut.
When Florida's flagship university is forced to eliminate 430 faculty and staff positions and reduce enrollment by 4,000 students over the next four years, it doesn't get there overnight. The $47-million budget cut it will suffer this year at the hands of the Florida Legislature is but the latest financial blow.
UF and the 10 other public universities have endured some $130-million worth of cuts just since the beginning of the 2007-08 fiscal year. Over the past 18 years, the amount the state has invested to educate each university student has dropped, when adjusted for inflation, from $14,039 to $10,728. The university system has the lowest tuition and highest student-faculty ratio in the nation. It ranks 46th in the production of bachelor's degrees.
As UF goes a second year without faculty raises and eliminates or restructures 20 different degree programs, the pain is spreading. The University of South Florida is losing $34-million and already has frozen about 150 faculty and staff positions. Florida State University, facing a $17.5-million cut, already has reduced freshman enrollment. Florida International University, coping with an $11.9-million drop, is closing six research institutes. A statewide program that has matched some $1.7-billion in private university donations over the past three decades has received nothing for 2008-09.
The insult to these injuries is that political leaders still talk the game. House Speaker Marco Rubio opened this year's session by insisting: "We cannot have a vibrant economy without vibrant universities." Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist called for "a multiyear plan and action steps" to improve university quality and access: "It should build on my inaugural promise to create an education system that is not only the best in the country but the best in the world."
Faced with a difficult economy, though, these leaders have all but given up. The only strategic goal in Tallahassee these days is to balance the budget and avoid being accused of raising taxes. Everything else is a distant second.
Outside the capital, the ambitions are considerably higher. Virtually every study of higher education over the past two decades has called for higher tuitions and greater state investment. The business leaders who form the Florida Council of 100 spoke directly to the Legislature's reluctance in a 2004 report.
"We understand that this will be a difficult transition to make," the council wrote. "It will require an increased awareness of the role the state (the taxpayers) and the student have in paying for a university education. But it must be done."
Students and families across Florida provide the example. Every year, thousands of students hold down jobs at the same time they attend classes, and parents take on second jobs to help them out. Over the past two decades, families have invested in more than 1.2-million prepaid tuition plans as a way to plan for and protect their children's educational future.
These are the kinds of sacrifices that students and families are willing to make for their future. But now some of them are being told there is no room in Florida universities for them. The thousand who will be turned away from UF this fall are but a fraction of those who, absent a change in the state's political priorities, will face rejection in years to come.