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THE EDUCATIONAL ROLLER COASTER // Self-help for higher education

Maybe it's just in Dennis Ross' nature to be optimistic. On the surface, the Tampa-based member of Florida's university Board of Regents wouldn't seem to have much reason for joy.

Taxpayer support for public colleges and universities has been in decline for six years.

Powerful legislators continue a drumbeat of populist criticism, charging that universities remain bloated and unfocused.

There's even a pending proposal, prompted by a conflict last fall between the regents and their most popular university president, to strip regents of much of their power and spread it to newly created local boards of trustees, each in charge of its own university fiefdom.

Still, Ross, who chairs the regents' legislative committee, surveys the crisis and sees opportunity. "The exciting thing about the past several months," he says, "is that . . . all of a sudden, all this stuff is happening."

A bipartisan group of prominent business and education leaders, after a year of discussion, stepped forward last month to raise the alarm about Florida's "disinvestment" in higher education. Present trends cannot continue, the group said, pointing out that jobs will be lost if too many Floridians are denied a meaningful college opportunity. The group's balanced approach seems to be getting favorable attention.

The report also highlighted the universities' own ongoing efforts at reform and increased productivity _ a renewed focus on teaching, improved graduation rates, even a rethinking of faculty tenure.

True, some of this reform has come from legislative pressure. But business leaders have bolstered the argument that universities cannot thrive under old bureaucratic rules any better than today's corporations can. Even the flap involving the regents and University of Florida president John Lombardi has ripened the atmosphere for a new shift of power _ out of the hands of Tallahassee bureaucrats and back to individual universities and campuses _ a shift that regents, Chancellor Charles Reed and all 10 university presidents have been pushing for years.

While legislative committees ponder the "break up the regents" proposal and examine the governing structures of university systems in other states, Reed and the presidents have been busy rewriting procedures to streamline decision-making and place more of it at the local level _ without changing the regents' overall responsibility for all 10 universities.

They've also developed a wish list of proposals to further curtail the Legislature's micro-management of educators' techniques and strategies. They expect legislators to set meaningful goals, sure, but they'd rather be free to do their own work while public watchdogs focus on the results.

Will lawmakers and their staffs, especially in the more conservative Senate, be ready to give up their more detailed oversight of university operations? That remains to be seen. But even the Legislature is moving toward a system of "performance-based budgeting," which is focused more on what taxpayers are getting for their money than on the details of how the money should be spent.

Meanwhile, "There's a lot of energy coming from the chancellor and his people, trying to figure out how to give us the tools we need to do all the things we've got to do," regent Ross says. "All of this has to continue."

The drive to reform Florida's universities _ helping them to become more responsive to students, employers and other constituents _ is just one of the higher education issues that legislators must deal with this spring.

Another question they face is: How should the universities balance access and quality? It's more than a question of figuring out how much money to spend on each student while trying not to water the soup.

The current drive to standardize college and university curriculums to help students graduate more quickly _ saving time and money for themselves while also making a place for the next student _ must be balanced against the legitimate notion that not all students prosper by following a rigid path. Will pushing students through college too quickly devalue their educations? We deserve a reasonably efficient system. But we don't want diploma mills.

There is also the question of whether Florida's historic open door to its community colleges _ the traditional point of entry for most Florida college students _ encourages people to attend college who are not fully prepared.

State Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz acknowledges that her recently defeated proposal to force degree-seeking community college students to meet the the more elite universities' admissions standards was ill-designed. But she has been right in pointing out that access without standards is a hollow opportunity. Her House Higher Education Committee, working closely with the committee that deals with grades K-12, still hopes to do something that will reduce the need for remedial education in college.

At the same time, some community college leaders think this problem has been overstated. Remedial college instruction in math and English language skills costs Florida taxpayers $50-million a year. But Michael Richardson, an official at St. Petersburg Junior College, points out that this is just 5 percent of the community college system's overall budget.

"The way I see it, that 5 percent is the price of access, the price of giving people a chance to start anew," says Richardson, who notes that most college students who need remedial work are not coming straight out of high school. They are older students, wanting to better themselves or coming back to school to learn new skills.

Legislators also will be asked to significantly increase the amount of money given to Florida residents who attend private Florida colleges.

It may seem odd that taxpayers subsidize private colleges when public institutions have such pressing needs. But the benefit is not just to the private colleges, who must compete with the heavily subsidized public system. If the price difference between public and private grows too great, then more students naturally flow into the public system, creating the need for both new buildings and more taxpayer subsidies.

In 16 years, the grant for individual students has grown from $750 to $1,200. William L. Boyd IV, chief lobbyist for the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, says he hopes legislators will honor a commitment made last year to raise the private subsidy to 30 percent of whatever the state pays to support a public college student. That would raise the individual subsidy to about $1,800.

Boyd also would like to see an increase in need-based state financial aid available to both public and private in-state college students.

Of course, the Legislature won't have a lot of new money to throw around. With health care and prisons eating up ever larger portions of the state's budget, colleges and universities will be lucky to hold their own.

University regents, for example, have made their most modest budget request in years, hoping that their reasonableness will be appreciated and rewarded with some of the other things they want.

One thing that most likely will increase is university tuition, which has gone untouched for several years. While no one finds it easy to pay tuition, Florida universities are actually a bargain compared to other states. The Business/Higher Education Partnership recommended that tuition be increased gradually over the next 10 years to cover 50 percent of the cost of each student's education _ up from the current 25 to 30 percent.

Raising taxes is another option _ but extremely unlikely in today's political climate. Florida universities simply cannot afford the luxury of being supported by both low taxes and low tuition, by national standards, the partnership said.

Students and their parents will find no comfort in the fact that this shift in financial burden has already begun. Over the past six years, tuition and other student fees have grown 61 percent, while taxpayer and lottery support has grown only 13 percent, less than the university's increase in enrollment.

(The partnership and others do recommend that any increase in tuition be accompanied by increases in financial aid, so that those who can afford higher rates pay it while those who can't get additional help. In an odd way, rising tuition can actually be fairer to less affluent students.)

Despite the heightened interest in higher education this year, no one really expects wholesale changes right away.

Some education supporters, for example, were disappointed in how the partnership asked for something less than a return to public higher education's historic levels of state funding. Instead, the group asked that state financial support be "stabilized" at its current level and added to later, when new money becomes available. Rising tuition, meanwhile, will have to make up the difference.

That pragmatic, even politically expedient, call may be disappointing to some, but it is credited for the warm reception that some of the group's other recommendations are receiving.

Similarly, the regents probably will not press for the full deregulation they have talked about _ that is, taking the university system out of the mainstream of state government and giving it independent constitutional status, or even setting it up as a private non-profit corporation.

Instead, Ross said the regents would likely opt for a more gradual approach, demonstrating in smaller ways how deregulation can make the universities more efficient and productive. From his own experience in private industry, he's confident that approach will work.

And, as legislators grow more confident in the results of the university's own reforms, then they'll be encouraged to go even further, he said. The important thing is to make enough of a change that the reforms have a chance to do their work.

James Harper writes about higher education for the Times.

Universities in the '990s

State support for each full-time student in 1989-90: $7,156

State support for each full-time student in 1995-96: $5,456

Percentage decrease: 24 percent

Increase in enrollment, during past six years: 21 percent

Increase in bachelor's degrees awarded: 30 percent

(In other words, the universities are producing more graduates faster than their overall enrollment increases - a sign of increased productivity.)

Increase in tax and lottery funding for universities, since 1989-90: 13 %

Increase in student tuition and fees: 61 %

Overall growth in university system budget, six years: 39 percent

Overall growth in state general budget: 45 percent

Source: State University System