Column: Florida's universities are on upward path

Published Dec. 22, 2017

Walk around any public university campus in Florida, and you'll sense a familiar bustle.

Students scurry across green lawns between classes, collecting flyers that promote student government's latest initiative or an upcoming lecture series. They congregate in the campus student union and the library, particularly during exam week, when facilities stay open all night. And they join their professors in researching important inventions and discoveries to advance humankind and propel the economy.

When I began as chair of the State University System in January 2016, I wanted to expand on our existing strengths while pushing for improvements in areas that would raise our standing nationally. Building on our record of enhanced accountability through performance funding, which the board developed and implemented when I was budget chair in 2013-14, I spelled out the following areas of focus: aligning degrees with the state workforce, raising the State University System's research profile, and enhancing Florida's 2+2 system by creating a seamless transition for students graduating from state colleges and entering our universities.

So how did we do? By nearly every measure, our universities are better off than they were two years ago. Our overall ascent was marked by U.S. News & World Report, which named Florida the Best State for Higher Education in 2017 and saw big leaps in national rankings among public universities — including UF and FSU, which jumped five spots to 9 and 33, respectively.

We can also point to progress on our more specific goals. Due to our board's nationally recognized performance funding model, which incentivizes improved student outcomes, Florida has made great strides toward aligning degrees with the workforce. Bachelor's degrees in science, technology, engineering and math have increased by 31 percent and health degrees have increased by 52 percent in the past five years. Similarly, we are producing more bachelor's and graduate degrees in business and health than any other disciplines. That shift has paid off in the job market, with 5 percent more students employed within one year after graduation and a jump in the average starting salary from $32,800 to $38,000 in five years. Florida's rising retention and graduation rates also contribute to a strong workforce, with performance funding driving our State University System to earn the highest six-year graduation rate out of the 10 largest states in 2016.

Florida has also made gains in terms of research, a key driver of economic development. Among recent accomplishments, university research vice presidents developed a system to respond more quickly to highly competitive federal and national research grant opportunities and to better compete with states like California and Texas, which already had processes in place. Additionally, for the past five years, the State University System has hosted annual workshops in Washington at which federal organizations like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Health, the National Cancer Institute, the Department of Homeland Security, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and other agencies talk to star faculty and administrators about their funding priorities and how to most effectively apply for federal research grants. We are the only state to hold these workshops, and these efforts are paying off. In fact, our Centers of Excellence at universities across the state continue to provide leadership in key emerging research and technology areas, helping Florida's economy, returning $7.64 for every state dollar invested, and improving the lives of all Floridians by advancing important innovations and discoveries.

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We also worked to improve access for students by strengthening Florida's renowned 2+2 program, which provides a path for students from the Florida College System to the State University System. Now, a plan is under way to provide a comprehensive, accessible, online 2+2 advising toolkit to help students plan their route to a bachelor's degree, encourage the improvement and expansion of existing local partnerships between the universities and colleges, and implement a 2+2 data and information toolkit to measure and improve in the areas that lead to a seamless transition and timely graduation.

American universities have long been known for their culture of discovery and innovation as well as their role as a beacon of opportunity for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. In Florida, those values have only grown more concrete as we push to attract and fuel new industry and ensure every student has the opportunity to graduate and succeed in the workforce. I'm grateful for the opportunity to help make our State University System all it can be, and I look forward to continuing my advocacy as our universities persist in their pursuit of national prominence.

Thomas Kuntz is chair of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System of Florida.