Florida Governor Rick Scott's reformer's zeal hadn't quite been unleashed in the state's higher education until now, but according to The New York Times, that is about to change.
Until recently, Scott's idea of higher education reform seemed to have been limited to cutting its budget, but going forward he is calling on the colleges and universities that make up the system to figure out ways to steer undergraduates to majors that would satisfy shortages in the Florida job market.
In short, Florida government is calling for schools to graduate more STEM professionals — science, technology, engineering and math — and to place less focus on Liberal Arts departments such as literature, history and English. One of the recent suggestions for doing that came directly from Scott's task force on higher education, which called on the schools to institute a three-year tuition freeze for students who choose to enter and pursue a degree in one of the shortage programs. A computer science student in a public Florida university would pay lower tuition than someone majoring in philosophy, and any shortfalls in funding this would produce should be made up from the state's coffers.
Also drawing enthusiasm are the $10,000 degree programs currently being implemented in Texas as a result of Governor Rick Perry's appeal for a cheap undergraduate program to help stem the rising tuition costs.
"Every business has to figure out how to make itself more efficient," Mr. Scott said when announcing the challenge at St. Petersburg College last month. "They've got to use technology. They've got to use the Internet, things like that. We can do the same thing with our state colleges."
Universities likely cannot offer four-year degrees for $10,000 — their average is more than $24,000 — but they are being asked to spend their money more judiciously. They are also being asked to quantify their performances using metrics such as figuring out which of their students actually get jobs after graduation.
To say that the suggestion was not taken well by the faculty and staff of the schools' liberal arts departments would be putting it mildly. The main complaint seems to be that lawmakers – Scott included – are underestimating the importance of a liberal arts education to the state's economy. Lillian Guerra, an associate professor of Cuban and Caribbean history at the University of Florida, pointed out that a liberal arts degree is needed to perform jobs in many different areas of the economy, including urban engineering, tourism – on which Florida greatly depends – and many others.
State spending per student declined 26 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to a reportfrom the State Higher Education Executive Officers, a nonprofit group of national education officials. That ranks among the sharpest reductions in the country, in part because enrollment also boomed. Last year, Mr. Scott and the Legislature lopped off another $300 million.
The taskforce concluded that the current situation of forbidding tuition increases while continually shrinking state funding must come to an end because it will start to substantially impact the quality of education offered in Florida public universities.