In Florida, Higher Education ‘Treated Disdainfully’

As part of a deal struck Monday, budget cuts to the University of South Florida will be limited to $40 million and the university's Lakeland campus will become the independent Florida Polytechnic University. (Photo: USF.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Unless something unexpected happens, the Republicans who control state government are about to slash $300 million from Florida’s public universities.

The plan — part of the $70 billion budget being hashed out by the Legislature and en route for Gov. Rick Scott’s signature — will almost certainly mean higher tuition fees. That would make seven years in a row of tuition hikes.

But the consequences will go far beyond the inconvenience to incoming or current students. As Time magazine’s Tim Padgett wrote this week, Florida already spends the least in the nation per-capita on higher education — “and reaps what it sows in the form of one of America’s most embarrassingly low-tech and low-wage economies.”

Since the recession started, Tallahassee has cut “an astonishing one-third of the state’s higher-education budget,” says Padgett, Time‘s Miami and Latin America bureau chief. “During that same period, Florida, the nation’s fourth largest state, has lost more than 10,000 high-tech jobs.”

Some of those jobs disappeared with the demise of the NASA space shuttle program. “But that in itself is another reminder that the peninsula can hardly afford to keep ignoring the examples set by the nation’s three largest states, California, Texas and New York, whose universities have played a major role in developing high-tech industries,” Padgett says.

Writing in a damning blog post entitled “How Florida is Leading U.S. Politics Back to the Culture Wars,” Padgett points to the example of Miami-Dade County, our largest metro area:

It ranks 13th among 15 large U.S. metropolises in the ratio of high-tech companies to total workers, according to a recent study by Texas-based Avalanche Consulting. A big reason: its share of college-educated residents is dead last, as is its share of workers trained for science- and technology-related fields. That affirms a constant complaint from high-tech firms about Florida in general: they can’t find enough skilled Floridians to make it worth their while to move there.

All 11 of the the state’s public universities will be sharing in the pain. Florida State University will take the biggest hit at almost $66 million, followed by the University of Central Florida at almost $53 million. The University of Florida faces a reduction of $35 million. (The cuts for individual schools are based on a formula that takes their reserves into account.)

University presidents have been quoted mainly expressing relief that the cuts weren’t more severe — a sign of how battered they’ve been feeling over the last few years.

Yet at the same time that state funding is plunging, legislators catered to the whims of a self-aggrandizing state senator, JD Alexander, the chair of the budget committee who pushed relentlessly to create a 12th university, the newly approved Florida Polytechnic University, out of what had been the Lakeland campus of the University of South Florida.

USF opposed the move and was threatened with a $58 million budget cut. Punishment? A ton of USF supporters thought so. On Monday, a deal was struck: Alexander eased the USF cuts to about $40 million and got his independent polytechnic university.

The school is to be established July 1. But it will take at least four years for it to get accredited, something that would have happened sooner if Alexander hadn’t demanded it split immediately from USF.

As the Tampa Tribune opined, this is an “idiotic expenditure,” rammed through by a “bullying” senator. There’s never been a cost-benefits study to demonstrate the need to spend millions to set up a new state university.

The governor should “should stop the Florida Polytechnic farce by vetoing it and finding a way to redistribute funds,” the paper said in a stinging editorial.

“The public’s tax dollars and Florida’s university system deserve more care.

“It is hard to imagine businesses wanting to invest in a state that treats higher education so disdainfully.”

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