Acknowledgments : This report on 11 public four-year undergraduate institutions in the state of Florida was prepared by the staff of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, primarily Dr. Michael Poliakoff and Armand Alacbay, Esq., with the assistance of The James Madison Institute (JMI) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). ACTA is grateful to the Office of the Board of Governors of the State University System of Florida for its kind advice and assistance in the research for this report. Unless otherwise stated, all data are based on publicly available information including academic catalogs, board agendas, minutes, bylaws, news releases, institutional websites, media reports, as well as conversations with various education leaders in the state. In addition, requests for supporting or clarifying information were sent to each institutional governing board.
The State University System of Florida has in recent years faced major budgetary challenges, remarkable for the size of its reductions in state funding, even when compared to the large cuts seen in so many states struck by the recession of 2008. What is more surprising in the world of higher education, however, is the progress that Florida’s public universities have achieved on such key indicators of quality as graduation and retention during these challenging times. This report, the 11th in ACTA’s series of state-focused studies, will examine the progress and achievements of the System, as well as the weaknesses and obstacles that it continues to confront. The story of Florida’s public universities has particular importance for higher education in other states: if successful, Florida’s proactive initiatives to maximize both access and academic quality will represent a key example for other states to follow and a new benchmark for cost-effectiveness in higher education.
Between 2007 and 2012, state funding for the System fell from $2.6 billion to $1.7 billion. State funding per full-time enrolled student during that time fell from $7,656 to $4,387 (not adjusted for inflation). Educational appropriations per FTE in two- and four-year colleges and universities in Florida for fiscal year 2012 were 87% of the national average.
Although tuition in the System increased 58% between 2007 and 2012, tuition increases were built upon the low base of tuition and fees of $3,525 in 2007. The University of Florida is one of the 62 members of the Association of American Universities, and has the further distinction of the lowest tuition rate in the AAU. Enrollment increases, moreover, have been strong: overall the System saw a 12% rise between 2006 and 2011.
Metrics of academic quality during this period have shown significant improvement. The State University System had a combined six-year graduation rate of 66% for its 2006–2012 cohort, which places it among the top ten nationally, showing a 2% improvement over the 2002– 2008 cohort. Retention rates for the 2011–2012 cohort of first-time college students moved up to 88%, one percentage point higher than the 2007 cohort.
Despite the overall progress for the System as a whole, individual campuses, as the System Accountability Report notes, need to improve their graduation rates. Six universities have six- year graduation rates below 50%. Only two campuses (the University of Florida and Florida State University) have four-year graduation rates above 60%. The System four-year graduation rate average is 42%, and five universities have rates of 25% or lower. It is promising, however, that Florida is taking clear aim at improving the four-year graduation rate. With the encouragement of Florida’s “Excess Credit Hour Surcharge” legislation, students have a strong financial incentive to complete their baccalaureate degrees efficiently. Florida has also created rules for its “Bright Futures” scholarship that discourage non-completion of courses: Students must repay a portion of their award for any course dropped or withdrawn. 64% of the 2011–2012 graduates of System universities completed their degrees without excess credit hours, an important metric that will continue to merit attention.
Improved graduation rates are important but, in isolation, they tell us little about academic quality: core curriculum and assessment of progress in core collegiate skills are crucial correlates of graduation rates in determining levels of student success.
Florida has established a framework for the development of a strong core curriculum at System universities, but it has not yet completed the task of ensuring that all students graduate with the knowledge and skills essential for success as citizens and as workers facing a demanding and ever-evolving job market. State legislation and System Board of Governors policies have established clear requirements for expository writing, collegiate level mathematics, and natural science. It is to the System’s credit that it ranks third among all university systems for its production of undergraduate STEM degrees, but even that achievement will not suffice to meet the needs of students and our country. A focus on careers should not ignore the importance of broad-based skills and knowledge, which help prepare students for informed citizenship and lifelong learning. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average person changes jobs more than 11 times between the ages of 18 and 46; a quality college education must look toward acquiring the tools that make it possible to adapt to new career opportunities, and that means the essentials of liberal education.
As important as career training is, so is shaping the values of citizenship and civic charac- ter. The absence of a requirement for economics in today’s global marketplace is a disservice to students, and the failure to require a foundational course in U.S. history or government means that too many students will leave college with a limited understanding of how to participate effectively in the free institutions of our nation. In contrast, states such as Texas and Nevada have passed legislation requiring institutions to ensure that students complete coursework in U.S. history and government. In a state whose history includes the oldest continuous European settlement in the United States and whose neighbor Georgia requires American history for undergraduates in its public universities, it is a sad irony that a fundamental course in the nation’s history is required at only one of Florida’s public universities.6
The System and the individual universities have facilitated policy analysis through the System’s annual Accountability Report and the annual Fact Books, Accountability Reports, and Work Plans from the individual universities. These commendably ensure transparency and help the Board of Governors, state government, and public understand Florida’s initiatives to improve quality and cost effectiveness. The clear and efficient presentation of key data in these reports sets an example for the nation.
These reports in turn reveal progress with a number of important quality and cost-effectiveness initiatives. Between May 2011 and May 2012, System boards of trustees terminated 21 undergraduate programs, suspended six others, and refused to approve three. Twelve new programs were added during that same period. Eighteen graduate programs were terminated, four suspended, and three denied approval, while nine new programs were added. Since 2008, the System decreased administrative and support expenditures by 8%, while increasing expenditure on instruction and research.
There are, however, some important indicators that should be added on both a campus and System level. Only three universities provide information in their annual Fact Books on changes in grade distribution over time, a key indicator of possible grade inflation and a crucial metric that can guard against the danger of increasing graduation rates by lowering academic rigor. Although Florida has state requirements for efficient use of classroom and laboratory stations and overall the System universities exceed those requirements, only one university provides public information on utilization of classrooms by day of the week and hour of the day. Its low usage on Friday afternoons and on all mornings at 8:00 AM does, in fact, show an underutilized capacity that suggests a need for more fine-grained data before new capital building projects are undertaken.
Florida’s strong commitment to student success has not diminished its success in com- munity engagement and research. Six of the System institutions are classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning as Community Engagement Universities. Based on 2010 income from licensing technological and scientific inventions, the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) ranked University of Florida 17th in the nation and University of South Florida 20th. In 2012, the National Science Foundation ranked the University of Florida 12th in the nation in research and development expenditures, and the same year the University of South Florida moved from 65th in those rankings to 50th in the nation.
Florida’s public university system has a bold course ahead, with plans under development for the University of Florida to take the lead in establishing an institute for online learning, making the existing network of 389 distance-learning programs offered by ten System institutions more efficient. Moreover, recent legislation has paved the way for the System to streamline its general education program in order to promote student completion.
Overall, Florida public universities are on a prudent and successful course during these difficult economic times. Significant challenges and difficult decisions over priorities remain. It is clear, however, that Florida has high potential to be a model for other states.