University system needs to be financially solvent

These days, the overabundance of dire warnings can sometimes be difficult to take seriously, but the ones recently leveled against Florida’s higher education system are hard to ignore.

A study released last week by the Pappas Consultancy Group has been termed both blunt and biting in describing a disorganized and underfunded system. Needless to say, these aren’t the words needed to attract the best and brightest to the state.

While some criticisms of the study are warranted and not all the solutions suggested by the study are possible, hopefully the alarms that have been raised will be taken seriously.

In terms of how close the study came to the truth, it should be noted that State University System Chancellor Mark Rosenberg said, “Everything in the report is accurately portrayed.”

The Pappas study hones in on the negative impact that low tuition, the Bright Futures Scholarship Program and pre-paid college have had on higher education in Florida. Popular as they may be, Bright Futures and the prepaid tuition programs have provided a significant disincentive for increases to Florida’s average yearly tuition and fees – currently $3,350 – at the state’s 11 public universities.

Sure, you don’t always get what you pay for, but it seems more than coincidence that a state with one of the lowest tuition rates in the country is experiencing questions about the quality of the university system.

Bright Futures and prepaid tuition programs, as they are currently structured, exacerbate the state’s difficulties because, as the Pappas study indicates, “To make sure these programs don’t go bankrupt, the state has kept tuition low.” Intuitively this makes sense, but don’t look for a politician or any student benefiting from Bright Futures to want to make any changes. It is just too sweet a deal.

Perhaps the most stinging portion of the study to the USF community is the criticism of the research focus of so many state institutions. Alceste T. Pappas said, “State colleges are calling themselves research universities, even though the University of Florida is the only player on a national level,” and went on to add that research costs are generally higher than the income they create.

This is a troubling message being sent to The Board of Governors from a USF perspective, but it is long overdue. Attend a graduation, peruse the University Web site or listen to President Genshaft speak, and little more than a few sentences will be uttered without a call to become a top 50-public research institution.

The Pappas study rightly attempts to put the focus on undergraduate education. There is a reason that Florida ranks No. 43 in the country for the percentage of residents that have bachelor degrees. The university system needs to make improving this a priority.

A good start would be breaking down the semi-autonomous bureaucracy that has public institutions competing against each other in terms of status of programs. Is it better that every university has a medical school or that the few that do have the best? This is a fundamental choice the state must make. Should it have many indistinguishable, mediocre schools or schools that specialize and can be competitive?

With this in mind, the BOG has a great opportunity to forge a new and more competitive direction for Florida’s higher education. Myriads of ideas abound, including leveraging the state’s community colleges more effectively and providing financial incentives for institutions that raise their graduation rates. These ideas may not fix all of Florida’s public university woes, but the key component is the realization that the status quo is failing.

Without this realization, the public university system will continue to lag behind other states that will be more than willing to attract and retain Florida’s most talented students.

Shifting gears, I want to briefly recognize the life of Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald who passed away last week at the age of 81. His form of political humor and commentary will be missed and as he said it best, “The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.”

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.