Scott stunt won't fix higher ed

Published Nov. 26, 2012

CHEAP Gimmicks are no way to improve Florida's higher education system and better prepare students for the work force. That is exactly what Gov. Rick Scott proposed Monday, borrowing a simplistic idea from Texas by challenging the state college system to offer $10,000 bachelor's degrees. How this blue-light special fits with Scott's supposed commitment to building a quality higher education system that produces more science, math and technology degrees is anyone's guess. But slashing prices to deliver cheap college degrees when what's really needed is more public investment in colleges and universities is the wrong approach.

The governor traveled to St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus and Valencia College's Orlando campus to tout his challenge to the college system that now includes some institutions that offer four-year degrees. His goal is for those institutions, already less expensive than the state's 12 public universities, to offer some bachelor's degrees for roughly 20 percent to 25 percent less than they now charge for tuition.

Scott says he is doing this for cash-strapped families so their children can afford the college degrees they need to get good jobs. But he made no mention that as governor he has signed into law deep spending cuts for higher education that have forced the sorts of tuition increases he now opposes.

Florida spent 6.5 percent less on each higher education student last year than it did before Scott took office. And higher education has been hit particularly hard in Florida by recession-era budgets. The state's contribution is down 26 percent per student in the past five years, according to the State Higher Education Finance Report, a drop that is twice as steep as the rest of the nation. And while tuition has risen, it hasn't come close to covering the drop in state funding, meaning students now pay more to attend schools that spend less to educate them.

Scott also failed to mention that the very degrees that would be most likely to lead to immediate high-paying jobs — such as nursing — are often the most expensive to provide. Scott suggested in media interviews he believed colleges could just find additional efficiencies to come up with the money needed to discount tuition to $10,000.

The track record so far in Texas — where Gov. Rick Perry made the same challenge a year ago — would suggest otherwise. Texas colleges have responded by cobbling together various forms of scholarships for a small number of students. Some programs are aimed at older working adults — not recent high school graduates, as Scott implied on Monday. And some come with significant admission requirements, such as high grade-point averages.

A pilot program at St. Petersburg College — offering a technology management degree — is expected to have significant caveats. President Bill Law acknowledged it will serve just a limited number of students, who will likely need to show up with some college credit already under their belt.

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Even with recent tuition increases, Florida colleges and universities are underpriced and underfunded. If Scott wants to reduce tuition for Florida families and provide the quality higher education they should expect, the state needs to find more money to invest. The governor wants to run the state like a business. Successful businesses don't slash prices to move cheap products to a few customers and fail to invest in quality. This is a publicity stunt that has not taken off in Texas, and Floridians are likely to be just as skeptical.