Florida lawmakers are seriously considering a university merger that would fold a pair of smaller, specialized state schools into the much larger University of Florida. But nobody knows why.
Contrary to what the Florida House is trying to do this year, Florida politicians, leaders and business groups have, for more than a decade, called for increasing emphasis on STEM-related education, that is, an intense push for college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In response, state lawmakers created Florida Polytechnic University in 2012. Here’s how the Florida Chamber of Commerce described it:
The newest member of the State University System of Florida is the state’s only public university dedicated wholly to STEM career paths, where students can major in anything from a B.S. in Computer Engineering to an M.S. in Innovation and Technology. The Lakeland university’s difference is their focus on integrated, technologically-based learning models, that give students hands-on experience and allow them to graduate ready to enter the competitive high-tech workforce.
Economic models show that the demand for a highly educated workforce is likely to be double that of other types of degrees for the foreseeable future. Florida Poly exists because it delivers exactly what Florida’s growing economy needs.
Despite these facts, the bizarre push by lawmakers to consolidate Florida Poly and New College of Florida and allow the University of Florida to absorb their operations continues to march through the Florida House of Representatives.
The most salient question: why?
No compelling case has been put forth, and ethics watchdog groups have condemned the proposal.
“This scheme sprang up without warning, without study, and without even the courtesy of informing the affected university presidents,” said Ben Wilcox, on behalf of Integrity Florida.”It appears to be ill thought-out and it represents exactly what people dislike about the often-secretive legislative process. It should be stopped before it goes any further.”
Both New College and Florida Poly are delivering exactly what they have been asked to deliver. Criticisms of these schools are baseless, and in some cases, downright disingenuous.
Comparisons of Florida Polytechnic’s graduation rate with that of more traditional schools is a prime example of the sort of misleading arguments being tossed out in an effort to justify what Integrity Florida calls a “power grab” by some in the legislature. The defense of Florida Poly is as simple as it is compelling. Science and engineering schools are more academically rigorous than comprehensive universities. Florida Poly’s engineering students, for example, complete their degree in four years at a rate that is 42% higher than the average across the state’s other engineering colleges.
The median starting salary for Florida Poly’s first class of graduates? Nearly $55,000, about 50% higher than the average median wage across the state university system.
Some lawmakers argue that Polytechnic’s academic offerings are redundant because the University of Florida offers similar courses. But this argument ignores the fact that Florida Poly offers students a unique opportunity to learn in a small, 100% STEM environment that is unavailable at any other state university in Florida. And the school delivers these results on a budget that is less than one percent – 0.87% to be precise – of the state university system’s budget.
Among the most disingenuous claims made against Florida Poly is the idea that the University of Florida should absorb Florida Polytechnic because it could administer its programs for less money. This claim is undercut by the indisputable fact that UF provided administrative services to Florida Poly from 2012 through 2016, and just four years later Florida Poly administers those operations for almost $1.5 million per year less than UF charged for the same services.
Any knocks against New College are also contrived, at best.
The school is ranked #6 among public colleges in the U.S. trailing just behind the United States military service academies. In addition to being among the very highest ranking public colleges, it is also the top ranked school nationally in the percent of students who go on to earn PhDs in science and engineering, and boasts more Fulbright scholars per capita than Harvard or Yale (74 in the past 15 years. That’s 13% of all Florida state university system awardees.
Further, most New College students would not have applied to the school if it was a satellite campus of the University of Florida. They would have applied to a liberal arts college in another state, and that talent would have been lost to Florida.
The worst part of this? Applications are up 30% over last year, but news about a pending takeover is causing students and parents to rethink their plans.
Integrity Florida summed up the situation in a press release yesterday:
A proposal of this magnitude deserves serious deliberation and vetting, and the proponents need to provide real evidence that it will, in fact, result in the cost savings that they claim. Instead, it’s being rammed through the process with a disregard for facts and despite the objections of legislators from both political parties, the universities’ presidents and students.
The proposal has one committee stop left before it can hit the House floor for a full vote. After that, it’s up the Florida Senate, where the schools and their students could become bargaining chips in a much bigger power game as lawmakers hammer out the finer points of a state budget that will top $90 billion.
Florida Polytechnic and New College of Florida have both delivered on their ends of the educational bargain. It’s time for state lawmakers to stop meddling with one of Florida’s most important assets: higher education.