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Florida budget features alarming gap between two-year and four-year colleges

As the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature gets closer to finalizing its budget for the coming year, Florida continues to follow an often-overlooked trend in higher education: inadequate funding for state and community colleges. 

The Florida College System (FCS), which oversees two-year community colleges like HCC, currently serves about 733,000 undergraduates, over twice as many as our four-year universities at 341,000. Many students at two-year colleges are part time, but because there are so many more students, the college system and university system each have roughly the same workload.

Even with similar levels of student need, however, two-year colleges receive less than half as much revenue from the state government. Last year, the state allocated $3.15 billion to four-year universities but only put $1.25 billion toward two-year colleges.   

Looking at the nation as a whole, Florida is hardly alone in this regard. A 2019 report from the Century Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., found that across the U.S., even when excluding research costs, public universities spend about 60 percent more per student than community colleges do.

These funding gaps have real impacts on student success. Only 41 percent of community college students in the U.S. obtained their associate degree within six years of starting college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Florida outperforms the national average significantly at 48 percent, but in absolute terms, it’s still not enough.

While some might take these low completion rates as a given, recent research shows that increasing resources can boost graduation. A 2017 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at 23 years of data on higher education spending and found that on average, a 10 percent increase in spending led to a 14.5 percent increase in degrees and certificates awarded.

The Century Foundation points to a handful of ways in which greater resources can help two-year college students. Hiring full-time professors as opposed to part-time adjuncts, increasing tutoring resources, decreasing class sizes, adding more advising and providing more financial aid are all strategies FCS colleges could take, given the additional dollars to make them happen.

Fair funding for community colleges also boosts educational equity. Over half of FCS students are low-income and a majority are students of color, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. As Florida’s four-year universities become increasingly competitive, completing an associate’s and transferring is many young Floridians’ best option for educational attainment.

As Florida strives to provide high-quality, low-cost postsecondary education, lawmakers shouldn’t forget about the pivotal role that our two-year colleges play. It’s time to invest in all college students.

Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.