The quest for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees might eventually lead to a quest for higher tuition for students entering those programs, based on comments Friday from a key lawmaker and some leaders of the state’s higher education system.
The comments came during and after a House hearing on higher education reform that featured University of Florida President Bernie Machen and Florida State University President Eric Barron. The House Education Committee is scheduled to meet with the presidents of the nine other universities next week.
The educator were called in to get their take on a number of issues, including calls in some circles to streamline the delivery of higher education by eliminating duplicate programs among the state’s universities, a move presidents say should be taken with extreme caution.
Gov. Rick Scott has indicated he wants to make a focus on so-called STEM degrees a higher priority in the state’s colleges and universities. Major changes will likely wait until 2013, but House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, has suggested that at least some tweaks to the current system could be considered this year.
The comments calling for more tuition flexibility — including the ability to raise tuition for select degrees more quickly than for other programs — stood in stark contrast to Scott’s push to freeze tuition even as he pushes for more emphasis on STEM. The presidents said STEM degrees are among the most expensive to fund because of the equipment and highly-coveted faculty that are needed.
“There’s potential dichotomy here,” said Frank Brogan, chancellor of the State University System.
Florida already has some of the lowest tuition rates in the country, university officials say. For context, Barron said: “If I charged instantly the average public university tuition in this country, I could double every STEM program at Florida State University and have money left over.” He said he was not proposing the Legislature actually allow that.
Barron said he wasn’t just pushing for higher tuition for higher tuition’s sake. He said universities should be willing to offer something for the higher price — and hopefully discourage students in STEM programs from changing majors as frequently.
“If you actually charge what the degree was worth, and you were giving the students that high quality, you’ll actually have more graduates,” he said.
House Education Committee Chairman Bill Proctor, a St. Augustine Republican and chancellor of Flagler College, said allowing universities to charge more for STEM degrees didn’t seem unreasonable to him.
“If you’re going to come back and say we need to maintain STEM and increase STEM, then it seems to me it stands to reason we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to fund that without cannibalizing other programs,” Proctor said after the meeting.
But it’s not clear how eager lawmakers will be to allow more tuition increases in an election year as a modest economic recovery is still gaining strength. Lawmakers and Scott have pledged not to raise taxes, and Scott has also signaled a hesitation about other measures that might increase the cost-of-living for residents.
University officials are also calling for lawmakers to be cautious in addressing another frequently-cited flaw of the current system: a lack of coordination that leads to duplication of existing programs. Barron, for instance, said that pushing colleges to specialize too much could lead to the loss of programs that help research universities remain highly regarded, and he noted that 50 percent of students change their mind about their majors after they get to campus.
“We want to make sure we don’t disadvantage students that all of a sudden become really excited about something,” Barron said.
And Brogan told reporters after the meeting that the state also has to be sensitive to whether some Floridians are able to travel or move long distances to attend college.
“That has to be tempered with too much duplication,” he said.
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida