Florida’s university system needs to focus more on undergraduate education and less on research and advanced degrees, according to a harsh report released Thursday.
The report, produced by independent consultant Pappas Consulting Inc., stated that the Bright Futures and Florida Prepaid College programs cannot continue in their current form. It also recommends that USF St. Petersburg become a standalone university as part of a larger plan to create more universities tailored to undergraduate needs.
The Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s 11 state universities, paid $200,000 of private funding for the report. It will begin to discuss the recommendations from the report when it meets in Boca Raton at Florida Atlantic University on Thursday.
The report based its recommendations on traditional demographic and economic data analysis as well as interviews with lawmakers, business leaders and higher education leaders.
University administrators greeted the report with caution, saying it is too soon to comment. It needs further deliberation and discussion among state education leaders first, said USF Media Relations Coordinator Lara Wade after conferring with USF Chief Financial Officer Carl Carlucci, Vice Provost Ralph Wilcox and the President’s Office.
“We believe that this is a preliminary report and that it is inappropriate for (us) to discuss it right now,” Wade said. “We’re waiting to see what comes out of it down the road before we discuss it any further.”
The report stated that the large number of students who use either Bright Futures or Florida Prepaid, coupled with the lowest in-state tuition in the country, “will bankrupt the state’s higher education system” unless the system is changed.
USF student body President Frank Harrison, who is this year’s student representative on the BOG, said he agreed with the report’s findings about Bright Futures.
“I agree that the program is unsustainable,” Harrison said. “We need to have significantly more need-based financial aid. People need to recognize that the amount of people that are educated is what is going to determine our state’s economy in 20 years.”
USF President Judy Genshaft released a written response to the report Friday that said, “It is our firm belief that USF’s existing structure serves as a model and is both effective and responsive to the needs of our diverse constituencies. The Report contains many recommendations; we at USF will continue to monitor and participate in the ensuing policy discussions.”
USF St. Petersburg Vice Chancellor Karen White, who was in Washington when the report was released, echoed Genshaft’s statements.
“One of the strengths of USF St. Petersburg is its affiliation with USF, the whole entity of USF, a research university,” White said. “We have the enviable opportunity to have separate accreditation and also be part of the USF family.”
USF St. Petersburg received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2006, allowing it greater control over decisions on its curriculum, admissions and faculty. In 2002, controversy over the autonomy of USF St. Petersburg came to a head when Genshaft appointed Wilcox interim CEO of the branch campus. Wilcox replaced Bill Heller, who served as CEO for 10 years, and White took over in July 2003.
The report also states that the funding system emphasizes quantity over quality by doling out money to colleges based on enrollment, rather than retention and graduation rates. This explains why universities resist branch campuses breaking away into standalone universities and why universities with research ambitions grow large undergraduate programs to “underwrite” their research and graduate programs, the report stated.
The report suggests the creation of a second tier of universities devoted to undergraduate education by using financial incentives to entice existing universities to change their focus.
It also proposes converting some community colleges and three branch campuses, including USF St. Petersburg, into this subsystem, as well as converting some private universities into public or quasi-public institutions. The now-defunct Board of Regents proposed a similar system in the 1990s that drew heavy opposition.
The report also recommended more funding for distance education, online degree programs and programs that contribute to Florida’s economic development, as well as a retooling of the state’s funding system that bases funding more heavily on retention and graduation rates.
Key recommendationsin the report:
1. Establish a new system within the state university system with sole focus on bachelor’s degrees, instead of research and graduate work.
2. Base funding more heavily on a university’s retention and graduation rates, instead of enrollment.
3. Provide more funding for high state- need academic programs, such as nursing.
4. Invest in research and graduate study that will further the state’s economic development.
5. Expand access to distance education degrees, with a focus on internet-based courses.
6. Expand access to independent colleges and universities with initiatives such as forgivable loan programs.
Proposing a Blueprint for Higher Education in Florida: Outlining the Way to a Long-term Master Plan for Higher Education in Florida, Pappas Consulting Group Inc.
News Editor Joshua Neiderer contributed to this report.