Rick Scott has wrong ideas about higher education

On October 24, 2011

Gov. Rick Scott is not making any friends in higher education this month.

His now infamous anthropology remarks may have initially been a misstep, but his recent actions demonstrate that he is indeed serious about getting state universities to shift focus away from apparently less important majors to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs.

Earlier this month, he sent a letter to all 11 university presidents in the State University System soliciting information he will likely use to further his agenda. If the 17 questions he asks in the letter are indicative of how he thinks universities should be run, his expectations are unreasonable and run contrary to how institutes of higher education actually operate in this country.

The letter appears to have been written by Scott himself, and it begins with a brief synopsis of his life story. Scott talks about the importance of setting "measurable goals" and teaching "writing proficiency and critical thinking." While these are valid points, some of Scott's questions are troubling.

Scott wants to create more jobs in Florida and feels that education reform is the way to do that. His first two questions deal with what universities are doing to meet "the needs of employers." Even if Scott wants to treat public universities similarly to traditional businesses, employers are not the customers in the scenario. While many students go to school to improve their chances at getting jobs, colleges should focus on providing a service for students, not businesses.

Students have different reasons for pursuing their majors, and the motivations are not all capitalistic. It is not, and should not be, the role of colleges to dictate what students do after they graduate.

Scott is correct in his call for greater "writing proficiency," as demonstrated by the letter itself, which contains such confusing or poorly written sentences as, "Do you measure the readiness of new students to succeed at your university? If so, do you measure on a per-incoming-high-school basis? If so, please send me the measurement and the results for the last five to 10 years."

Another question asks, "Do you have measurable goals for the number of graduates who remain in Florida post-graduation? If so, please send me the goals and the results for the last five to 10 years."

Scott seems to think that state universities should produce graduates with the skills to contribute to Florida's economy. This is not an unreasonable hope, as college graduates tend to earn higher paying jobs, but it is unrealistic to think universities can make graduates stay in Florida. Just because students go to school here, doesn't mean they want to spend the rest of their working lives here.

Having more STEM majors does not guarantee more jobs, either. In his letter, Scott mentions there are "over 900,000 Floridians out of work." These people are not unemployed because they all majored in anthropology and psychology and are thus unemployable. There just aren't enough jobs in the state, and creating more qualified graduates won't change that.

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