Florida must reverse disinvestment trend in higher education

Tallahassee's policies on higher education make a mockery of Florida's commitment to economic competitiveness, business development and job creation. The state's university and college systems continue to come under fiscal attack from the Legislature despite rising fears that the business community will not be able to find enough qualified graduates to fill critical job openings that require postsecondary degrees.

According to an analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 59 percent of Florida jobs will require a college education by 2018. But the 2010 Census shows only 36.5 percent of state residents hold at least a two-year associates degree. The percentage for Manatee County is slightly less, at 36.3, while the national average is 38.3 percent.

A report by the Lumina Foundation, issued in March, stated that between now and 2018 the Sunshine State will have 1.6 million job openings for workers with postsecondary credentials. Florida must produce more college graduates to fill those vacancies and compete in the global marketplace, or those jobs will move out of state.

In signing the state budget on Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott agreed to a 5 percent tuition increase at state colleges while at the same time indicating university tuition hikes should be limited to that same figure. While the Legislature did not include such an increase for the state's 11 universities, the schools can seek approval of hikes up to 15 percent from the Board of Governors.

Politicians continue to justify tuition increases with comparisons to costs in other states, labeling Florida a bargain with its ranking of 45th lowest in the nation. But that is a disingenuous argument considering state support for the university system has plunged by $730 million since 2008. The 2012-2013 state budget further erodes that support -- with a $300 million cut.

The Legislature doubled down on this shortsighted policy by forcing university to dip into reserves while also skimming $150 million from the funds to help balance the state budget. Those two moves could prove even more costly to universities as Moody's Investment Services issued a "credit negative" warning that might result in higher borrowing costs.

With tuition skyrocketing by 58 percent over the past decade and increasing annually for the past 16 years, the trend is crystal clear: Tallahassee is merely shifting the burden of a higher education onto students and their families while slashing the state's investment. Universities have little choice but to increase tuition to stem the hemorrhaging.

While the governor has placed a high priority on science, technology, engineering and mathematics as a boon to job creation and economic stimulation, universities have been hard pressed to maintain faculty in those fields as instructors flee to more competitive states. Florida State University, for example, has lost 80 STEM instructors over the past four years and tight budgets prevent the school from filling all those posts.

Funding reductions damage the learning environment, bringing larger classes, more graduate students teaching, and less student time with professors. That diminishes the value of a college education.

All this also comes at a time when college fees are rising and student financial aid is falling, particularly with Florida's Bright Futures scholarships.

In January's State of the Union address, President Obama noted that a higher education is quickly becoming unaffordable for many students and families -- with many already saddled with crushing debt. In 2010, two-thirds of college seniors graduated with loan debt averaging $25,250, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. The U.S. Department of Education recently reported a sharp increase in student loan defaults.

With national and state leaders placing greater emphasis on higher education and young adults embracing the importance of college, this grim picture can be altered.

Tallahassee politicians talk a good game about growing the economy but the talk comes too cheap. With the Legislature sadly lacking in bold vision and leadership regarding higher education, the business community must take the reins and demand greater investment.