Column: Florida raising bar on higher education

Published June 23, 2016

Florida's public universities are exceptional places. They provide opportunities for our young people and are a cornerstone of the American Dream. They create talent for our businesses and contribute $80 billion annually to our economy. They are the No. 1 producer of patents in this state and are deeply committed to advancing research in areas such as medicine, engineering and technology.

That's why when I began my role in January as chair of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System, I was determined to figure out how I could use this unique position to leverage the strength of Florida's higher education system while also elevating our service to students, employers and the taxpayers of Florida.

Stronger, more focused universities make for a more informed state and for greater prosperity and economic opportunity for all citizens. With that in mind, I laid out the following priorities: aligning our degrees to match the needs of Florida's high-skilled workforce, elevating our State University System's research profile, and increasing the access and the affordability of postsecondary degrees.

Six months in, I'm excited to update you on our progress.

The State University System has come a long way toward being responsive to the needs of the state workforce. Yet we continue to refine our strategies for building relationships with employers, steering students into high-need workforce areas, and exposing our students to mentorships and internships that give them a leg up in today's job market.

In January, the State University System launched the Think Florida: A Higher Degree for Business campaign, which raises the visibility of our efforts to build synergies with businesses in the areas of talent, research and partnerships. Initiatives include strengthened dialogue with our business partners, such as at the Florida Chamber Foundation's recent Learners to Earners Summit, as well as bolstering communication with employers, such as the Max Planck Institute for Neuroscience, the Scripps Research Institute, Navy Federal Credit Union and Lockheed Martin, all of whom have visited our board meetings to discuss their partnerships with our universities and what skills they want from our graduates.

The Board of Governors also recently published its second Graduate Follow-Up Study, which is designed to help students, parents, educators and policymakers better understand what courses of study lead to what job opportunities. The information in that study will resonate on campuses around our state as our institutions continue to ramp up their advising and career centers and ensure students have important workforce information at their fingertips.

We're also enhancing Florida's stature in the area of research, a university strength that contributes millions of dollars to the economy and helps solve some of the state and country's most pressing problems. It's clear we need to focus on faculty, facilities and funding, and the university vice presidents of research held a panel discussion with Board of Governors' members this week on how to achieve maximum progress in those areas — and measure our success.

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Those efforts are complemented by another coup for Florida. The State University System and the University of Central Florida were selected to co-host the 18th Annual Health and Human Services Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer Conference, titled Shining a Light on Small Business Innovation. The conference, on Nov. 15-17, will bring 800 researchers and entrepreneurs from around the country to learn how they can work together to access $870 million in federal grants to transfer the technology created at our universities into commercially viable products. We've also seen internationally recognized research breakthroughs at the university level, including a major discovery at Florida State University in the fight against the Zika virus that has significantly narrowed the search for a cure.

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott launched the Finish in Four, Save More Challenge, which brings a burst of momentum and attention to the important issues of access and affordability. I'm proud that the State University System responded to the governor's challenge with a promise to create a culture in which graduating in four years is no longer thought of as an option, but an expectation. That will go far to decrease educational costs and get students into the workforce faster.

At a time when our elected leaders have demonstrated unprecedented support for higher education, it's exciting to be on track to raise the bar in higher education. University commitment to performance has boosted Florida's graduation rate to the highest among the 10 largest states for the second year in a row, and the number of students graduating in science, technology, engineering and math is up 30 percent. We have a road map for improvement, and the possibilities are wide open.

Tom Kuntz is the chair of the State University System of Florida Board of Governors.