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A Times Editorial

Rein in wild competition at universities

It's time to restore order to Florida's higher education system. The state's 11 public universities, facing declining state support and rising enrollments, are poaching on each other's territories, duplicating efforts and pursuing high-cachet programs. The state's onetime community college system has morphed into a hodgepodge of 28 two- and four-year schools. And the burgeoning size of the universities begs the creation of a 12th, but there's no clue where the money will come from.

There are some efforts to rein in the wild, wild west. The Legislature created the advisory Higher Education Coordinating Council last year. Universities chancellor Frank Brogan and the Board of Governors are proposing a rule to reduce the universities' autonomy in adding programs. But without serious commitment from Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, the good intentions will be for naught.

Brogan understands the problems that stem from too much local control. He is a former state education commissioner, and he was Gov. Jeb Bush's lieutenant governor when Bush supported then-House Speaker John Thrasher's retaliatory maneuver to disband the Board of Regents. The regents had resisted the bid by Thrasher's alma mater, Florida State University, to add a medical school. Lawmakers abolished the regents, and FSU got its medical school.

Since then, programming at state universities and colleges has become a largely political game — even after voters gave a nod to centralized governance by creating the Board of Governors in 2002.

All that's needed to dictate higher education policy, and millions in tax-dollar spending, is a powerful legislative advocate. Hence, state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, succeeded this year in transforming the University of South Florida's Lakeland campus into USF Polytechnic. Now a handful of universities are planning to add expensive dental schools when it would likely be far cheaper to address the most pressing problem — too few dentists in rural areas — by offering student loan forgiveness for serving those areas.

Universities, with new autonomy to raise tuition, are racing to add students to make up for reduced state funding. Florida has three of the nation's 10 largest-enrollment institutions: University of Central Florida, University of Florida and USF. And all 11 are spending less on each student, ensuring higher student-to-faculty ratios. In 2009-10, Florida's public universities spent an average $11,000 per full-time student, $1,011 less than in 2006-07.

The state's 28 colleges can't raise tuition as high, but they're also on the hunt for students. Nineteen of the state's 28 former community colleges now offer bachelor's degrees; none did just a decade ago.

University and college presidents understandably may feel whiplash. State leaders have told the institutions to govern themselves and be more entrepreneurial in raising revenue in the face of declining state support. And lawmakers need to commit long-term to spending more on higher education.

But the status quo is unsustainable. Grow much larger, and Florida's institutions risk a reputation as diploma mills, not the high-quality institutions needed to attract economic development or help Floridians lead fulfilling lives.

Unregulated competition with so many students produces costly duplication that drains resources. Brogan — once a supporter of local control — now acknowledges its limits. The governor and Republican legislative leaders should back him up.

Rein in wild competition at universities 07/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2011 7:00pm]
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