The University of South Florida has been grossly mistreated by a last-minute decision by leaders of the Florida Legislature to change the rules for designating the state's top universities, which would cost USF millions of dollars and the elite status it has diligently worked to achieve for years. This is an indictment of the Legislature's penchant for secret deals that have sweeping impact, and the feeble explanations Monday were misleading and unpersuasive.
Only two of the state's 12 public universities, the University of Florida and Florida State University, have achieved pre-eminent status. That designation enables them to qualify for additional state money and more opportunities to improve programs and hire more top-notch professors. USF has been on the cusp of joining UF and FSU by meeting 11 of 12 performance metrics in areas such as student test scores, national rankings and graduation rates. Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Monday no new universities would have qualified under existing law, but that is incorrect. USF expected to meet the Board of Governors' requirement this year that at least 70 percent of its students graduate within six years. It also would have met a different goal lawmakers have been talking about for months, having 50 percent of its students graduate within four years.
Without warning, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran agreed to move the goal posts late Friday. They changed one number on page 232 of a 290-page bill, raising the required graduation rate within four years to 60 percent. Guess which university falls short? Hint: It's not UF or FSU.
The issue is not whether the bar for pre-eminent status should be set at 50 percent or 60 percent of students graduating within four years. The issue is that this policy change should not be decided by two legislative leaders in the final hours of the legislative session. It is not the policy adopted by the Board of Governors. It was not discussed by state lawmakers at public meetings this spring. There was no opportunity for USF, higher education experts or the public to weigh in. And lawmakers could only approve or reject the legislation Monday. They could not change it.
Negron, R-Stuart, takes full credit for making the change to 60 percent of students graduating in four years and is unrepentant. But he is flat wrong about the fairness of the process, and he and Corcoran have made far too many secret deals this session that will significantly change public policy. Negron and other senators also point out USF did well in the 2017-18 state budget lawmakers are expected to approve today. USF will have more than $45 million in funding increases, plus another $12 million for the new downtown Tampa homes for the college of medicine and the heart institute.
That's great, but that is not the issue here. The issue is USF has been unfairly treated in a secret deal, and this change in requirements for pre-eminent status should have been publicly debated. For example, USF points out more of its graduates receive Pell grants for financial need than graduates of UF and FSU, and a higher portion of its degrees are awarded to African American and Hispanic students. USF also has received national recognition for eliminating the gap between white and minority students on six-year graduation rates. Those factors should have been raised in a broader public discussion about the requirements for pre-eminent status.
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Negron and Corcoran made an arbitrary decision in secret and without explanation, and USF is the victim. At a minimum, legislators should pledge to revisit the requirements for pre-eminence status for universities in the next regular session that begins in January. USF was treated unfairly this time. In the next secret deal, it will be someone else who is unfairly punished.