Higher Education Reforms on the Way for Florida

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(Courtesy of The Daytona Beach News Journal)

DAYTONA BEACH — Changes are coming aimed at improving Florida’s higher education system to ensure students are graduating with skills needed in the state.

But what those changes will be and how they will impact faculty, students, universities and colleges may not be known until next year.

Higher education is already a hot-button issue in legislative committees and will be this coming session. Talks have started as Gov. Rick Scott has sought input from state colleges and universities about reforms being pushed in Texas.

Lane Wright, Scott’s press secretary, said the governor “just wants to start the conversation” with the goal of “improving our higher education system.” Scott is not saying the changes need to be the same as in Texas, Wright said, “but let’s see what makes sense for Florida.”

“His concern is to make sure Florida has a well-educated workforce that is going to draw employers to this state to help create jobs,” Wright said.

From college and university boards to the State University System Board of Governors and the Florida College System Council of Presidents, the Texas plan has spurred discussion and concerns and a need for Florida to formulate its own plan.

Parts of the Texas reforms tie bonuses for teachers based on the number of students they teach and how well students judge the courses. They also require more accountability from institutions and change how funding is allocated.

“When looking at funding based on performance, we have to be careful of what those measures are,” said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, chairwoman of the state Senate’s Budget Subcommittee on Higher Education Appropriations.

Lynn said the Texas plan, which has caused concern by some in Texas as well, is “just one plan.”

“We need to look at what is happening across the nation,” she said.

Lynn and educational leaders say Florida already exceeds Texas in many areas and has been working to improve graduation, retention and other student outcomes.

“We think there are some good ideas in that Texas plan, but there are many things about the Florida College System that put us already well ahead of the Texas plan,” said Daytona State College President Carol Eaton, who recently presented her board with information from the Council of Presidents.

But higher education leaders also say changes are needed to increase the number of students getting degrees and reduce the time it takes to complete their education.

“The time for increased accountability for colleges and universities is undoubtedly here,” Florida State University president Eric J. Barron said in a phone interview Wednesday, especially because institutions have to do more with less funding.

He’s developed a proposal with similar goals as Texas but “in a more comprehensive way to ensure we are standing up and saying we want to be held accountable.”

“I think that a lot of people agree that we can do better on some of these things,” Barron said.

The Board of Governors recently formed a work group of some university presidents and a faculty representative that will provide a system response to the governor and identify measures for the state university system’s strategic plan.

Frank Brogan, chancellor for the state university system, recently told his board Florida needs to make sure it is not only offering degrees “but that those degrees line up and match with the needs of the state,” nation and world so students can be successful.

Mori Hosseini, chairman/CEO of ICI Homes in Daytona Beach, who serves on the Board of Governors for the 11 state universities, said the state needs more students graduating in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) because currently less than 20 percent of students focus on those fields.

A more seamless transition is also needed, he said, for students transferring from community or state colleges into universities and he wants to see students graduating more quickly.

“We can no longer afford for our students to take five and six years to go to school,” Hosseini said. “Our budgets are being cut and cut and we are looking for different ways to come up with the best practices and efficiencies to graduate the most students.”

Hosseini said the state needs to be in the top 10 of performing public universities nationally considering Florida is the fourth largest state. He pointed to results from the U.S. News & World Report Best College rankings that showed the University of Florida tying for No. 19 among public universities nationwide with other Florida universities ranking lower. In another category, though, of “Up-and-Comers” nationally, the University of Central Florida tied at No. 4 for promising and innovative changes.

The state university system released figures Friday showing the system is ranked No. 4 nationally, and much higher than Texas, for six-year baccalaureate degree rates. Florida’s rate was 61.4 percent for 2004 to 2010. Florida’s system is also No. 2 of the 10 largest public university systems for retention rates of first-time college students. University of California was No. 1.

The average time for some Florida college students to obtain a bachelor degree is less than 4.5 years. Graduation rates for minority students are also in the top 10.

Other reports show only 26.6 percent of 25 to 64-year-olds in Florida have a bachelor degree or higher and about 35 percent have an associate degree or higher.

The Council of Presidents shows the Florida college system of state and community colleges is at the top in the Southern region in awarding certificates and associate degrees, outpacing Texas, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia. The Florida College System, they said, also has the highest three-year graduation rate at 34.4 percent, which is 16 percentage points higher than the Southern region average and 23.6 percent greater than Texas.

Joe Pickens, president of St. Johns River State College and former state representative for parts of Volusia County, still agreed changes are needed.

“Even in areas where we lead our peers, there is considerable room for improvement,” he said.

Pickens, chair of the Council of Presidents Policy and Advocacy Committee for the state’s 28 public colleges, said the best thing that has come out of this dialogue is “don’t rest on our laurels — let’s continue to try to improve.”

 

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