Lawmakers in the Senate said Tuesday they are reluctant to fully embrace changes to higher education like those pushed in Texas and now being championed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, said he is “willing to consider and look at this Texas plan.” But he said he was “not completely sold on it because the university presidents don’t particularly like it.”
Oelrich, the chair of the Senate higher education committee, and whose district includes the area around the University of Florida in Gainesville, said he will meet with Scott on Wednesday and one item on the agenda is discussing the higher education reforms first pushed by Gov. Rick Perry in Texas.
- Borrowing From Rick Perry: Gov. Rick Scott Wants More Texas in Florida Universities
- Students as Customers, Universities as Businesses: Scott’s Plan To Texify Higher Ed
- College Drop-Outs: Florida Lawmakers Cutting Bright Futures Scholarships a Further 20%
The changes would promote tying state funding to the performance of universities, such as graduation rates, and include a type of merit pay for professors that would give students more power in determining professor bonus pay and tenure. The idea is that universities should function more like private businesses and be scrutinized in terms of how productive the faculty is and how efficiently the university operates.
Scott has made higher education changes a key priority, and has spent a significant amount of energy reaching out to university and college presidents and speaking to his appointments to college and university governing boards about the Texas plan.
At a Senate higher education committee meeting on Tuesday, the first since the legislative session ended in May, lawmakers began studying the issue by hearing an update on how the state university system compares to similar systems in other states. For instance, Florida has the fourth highest rate of graduation within six years, at 61.4 percent.
Graduation rates are seized on as a way of measuring the success of a university because it can represent how well a school efficiently educates students. The longer a student takes to graduate, the more expensive that student is.
But at least one lawmaker, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the responsibility for graduating falls on the students.
“We should also focus on what is the student doing?” Negron said. “No one should take six years to graduate college, unless there is a financial or medical emergency.”
Oelrich said graduation rates need to be “tightened up.” Some universities have too few students graduate in six years he said. “It is not right and they are taking taxpayer dollars,” he said.
While more than 60 percent of Florida university students finish within 6 years on average, the lowest is Florida A&M, where fewer than half of students get their degree within that time frame.
Oelrich said the complex reforms contained in the Texas plan will take time to study.
“It will probably not happen this year, but certainly that would probably….be on the table for next year,” he said. “To have it come up here in a couple of months, literally, three months is pretty aggressive.”
Another lawmaker said the topic should be explored – albeit cautiously.
“I think it’s worth exploring,” said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, and the chair of the Senate’s higher education budget committee, about professor merit pay. “Whether that is going to work or not, I’m not sure.”
Lynn said lawmakers have to tread carefully when it comes to tinkering with universities. “We attract some of the best and finest professors from all over the world,” Lynn said. “We don’t want to lose that edge.”
State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan said Tuesday after the meeting that some university presidents are open to discussing changes in how they are funded. “Once you get past the initial reaction, which is ‘Change is scary,’ …I really think there is a broad consensus that now is a good time to begin to have these conversations.”
Universities have long been funded based predominantly on enrollment. Larger universities get more money from the state than smaller universities. That tends to encourage universities to constantly try to get bigger.
“What we have now basically says ‘If you grow, we will give you more money,’ ” Brogan said.
He said now is a good time, because of a dramatic drop in funding from the state, to consider accountability-based funding. “We all agree the old funding model isn’t even being used right now,” he said.
The House’s education committee meets Wednesday. Its chair, Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine has said he has some reservations about the Texas plan, including how it calls students “customers.”
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida