A recipe for mediocrity in higher ed

Published Jan. 11, 2013

The Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, needs visionary members with varied backgrounds who come from throughout the state. But Gov. Rick Scott didn't look much beyond his affluent Naples neighborhood or his simplistic views about running higher education on the cheap to appoint new members. It is a prescription for mediocrity when what the universities need is bold leadership and advocates for investing in their success.

Three of the appointees are from Naples, just like Scott. Three have backgrounds in health care, just like Scott. All five hew to the governor's no-tuition-increase mantra, an apparent qualification for appointment. None of this offers hope that the 17-member Board of Governors is ready for the challenges that are transforming higher education.

American higher education is undergoing a sea change, from on-line instruction to cutbacks in funding to existential questions about the point of a college degree at all. For Scott, college is only about getting a job and making money: Get out of college and into the workplace as quickly and cheaply as possible.

But failing to invest in higher education carries a high cost: faculty lost to other states, programs shut down, students who can't graduate on time because of limited course offerings. Though the full sticker price for a year at a Florida university now exceeds $20,000, tuition and fees come to just over $6,000.

Even with tuition increases in recent years, Florida still lands in the bottom tier. According to the College Board, only 10 states have tuition and fees lower than Florida's average. One of the governor's new appointees to the Board of Governors, Wendy Sartory Link, says, "I don't think there's a direct correlation between the amount of tuition and the quality of education you get." She is right that high tuition doesn't automatically translate into great education. But lacking other funding sources — and the Legislature and the governor have been miserly — too little money certainly does mean that Florida's higher education system will continue to crumble.

The February issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine ranks the University of Florida as the third-best value in public colleges. Part of that ranking is the low financial burden borne by students: 60 percent of UF students graduate without any debt, and those who carry debt have amounts far below the national average.

One more fact for context. A just-released Pew Trust study looks at the employment of recent college graduates and demonstrates a degree is still a great investment. The study concludes that new college graduates are still employed at far higher rates than those who didn't attend college, and the largest number are in work that needs a degree. In fact, the employment gaps between new college graduates and those without a degree markedly widened during the recession.

It would be a shame if the governor's myopic view continues to threaten the promise of higher education in Florida just when its value is clearer than ever. But filling the Board of Governors with new faces from similar backgrounds who will toe the line is not encouraging.