Great expectations

Published: Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 22, 2007 at 11:11 p.m.

Here's what's wrong with Florida's State University System: Champaign tastes, beer budget.

Actually, that's only part of what's wrong, but it's a good starting point for a discussion about the future of higher education in Florida.

Start with mission creep, or as a new consultant's study more aptly terms it, "mission leap."

Mission leap boils down to this: Many, perhaps most, of Florida's younger, smaller universities have great expectations. They aspire to become the University of Florida, with a full complement of graduate programs and professional schools. They want to employ world class faculty who conduct world class research and attract lots of federal and private funding and the prestige that goes along with it (and never mind that the pool of available research money seems to be shrinking, not expanding).

Most of those younger, smaller institutions also happen to be located in metro areas that enjoy considerable political influence. And so they have been able over the years to get state funding for new medical and law schools and other expensive graduate programs, even when the university system's own governing board and strategic plans recommend against them.

So much for the champaign tastes. What about the beer budget?

The Florida Legislature, while larding on funding for expensive professional and graduate programs, has been short-changing undergraduate enrollment funding for years, basically forcing universities to take on more students with fewer per-student dollars.

At the same time, politicians have kept Florida's tuition among the lowest in the nation. Add to that the growing financial liability of two very popular programs, Bright Futures scholarships and the Tait Florida Prepaid College Program, and you get a university system that is seriously top-heavy and grossly underfunded.

"Indeed," warns the new study by the Pappas Consulting Group prepared for the Board of Governors, "all of these economic decisions, while fueled in many ways with good intentions, will bankrupt the state's higher education system if these fundamental policy issues are not revisited in a timely manner."

Two especially alarming warnings are sounded by the analysis prepared by the consultant.

One, for all the billions of dollars of investment that has gone into developing and expanding the State University System, Florida is still not meeting the basic demand for undergraduate degrees, even as it adds expensive graduate programs in scatter-gun fashion.

And two, the state's system of financing higher education is inadequate. Furthermore the dollars that are available are not being spent very strategically, which is to say that too much money is going into "mission leap" and not enough into the basics.

"The establishment of three new medical schools since 2001 alone symbolizes this mission explosion," the study said. "...these decisions will either prove Florida was more visionary than any other state or more undisciplined."

The Pappas report is blunt, provocative and visionary in some of its recommendations (for instance, that Florida establish a system of state "colleges" to concentrate almost entirely on undergraduate education). If history is any indication, it will most likely end up gathering dust, like several earlier studies that raised many of the same concerns and warnings.

On the other hand, Florida has a new governor, new legislative leadership and a constitutionally empowered Board of Governors. The Pappas report offers those and other stake holders a starting point by which to begin a serious and wide-ranging dialogue about the future of higher education in Florida.

This is an opportunity that cannot be squandered. To do so is to deliver to the next generation of Floridians a higher education system that is poorly planned, badly funded and groaning under the weight of great expectations that can never be realized.

Clarification:The editorial published on Sunday, Jan. 17, titled "Leveling the PSC field," was about two new appointments to the Public Service Commission made by Gov. Charlie Crist. The editorial should have noted that Crist missed the deadline for making those appointments and will have to resubmit them for consideration by the Florida Senate.

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