Chopping higher education
There always is debate about what should be done to attract new businesses and bolster economic development. But one investment has consistently proved its ability to create jobs, build wealth and generate new enterprises: higher education. Yet Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders are allowing the state university system to languish, cutting higher education by more than 25 percent since 2008, though the universities have gained more than 20,000 students during that time. State leaders slashed $300 million this year, even as they created a new university, Florida Polytechnic, a half-baked venture that will be a drain on scarce dollars. This is no way to revive the state's economy. A recent study estimated the annual economic impact of the state university system at almost $80 billion, in large part because of the increased income of its graduates.The report to the Board of Governors found the average annual per-capita earnings for state university graduates in the fall of 2010 were $36,520 for graduates with bachelor's degrees, $58,698 for those with master's degrees, $66,743 for doctorates and $70,716 for professional degrees. In contrast, the average annual earnings for those with only a high-school diploma were $20,924. So slashing the higher education budget weakens both the state's work force and its economic prospects. The cuts already appear to be compromising our universities. Consider the University of South Florida, whose budget will be cut $37 million this year. Lawmakers shrug this off as reserve funds, but university officials say the money is used for daily operations. Previous budgets reductions have caused classes to be cut, graduate programs to be dropped and maintenance to be delayed. As the Tribune's Lindsay Peterson recently reported, USF had been striving to improve its student-to-professor ratio, a key benchmark for academic excellence. The average is 18 to 1 for the institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities, which USF hopes to join. USF had made some minor advances but slipped back to a regrettable 28-to-1 ratio because of recent funding cuts. The effects of this will go far beyond national prestige. A lower student-to-professor ratio is directly tied to timely graduation rates, which cut costs for taxpayers. Most Florida leaders don't seemed alarmed that the university system is going backward. Rep. Bill Proctor, a St. Augustine Republican, at least called attention to the neglect. He recently pointed out achievement numbers at some universities are starting to decline. Seven universities have freshman-retention rates below 85 percent, while six, including USF, have four-year graduation rates below 25 percent and six-year graduation rates below 50 percent. It is somewhat encouraging that Scott last week announced he was forming a blue-ribbon committee to look at higher education. It needs to be more than window dressing. Scott did, after all, authorize the Polytechnic debacle. Austerity is justified during tough economic times, and initial cuts forced the universities to be more efficient and resourceful. But continued major funding reductions have not been strategic and now are undermining the institutions that hold the greatest promise of helping Florida get out of its economic morass. That is no way to revive the economy and create new businesses.