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No more easy money by raising tuition at Florida universities

Gone are the days when “just because” is a valid reason to raise tuition at Florida universities.

Institutions also will not be receiving state appropriations solely based on enrollment, reputation or political clout.

Starting in fall 2013, the Florida Board of Governors will use a performance-based funding formula that rewards schools that net the best results and satisfy their core mission. The formula still is under development, but likely will take into account graduation and retention rates, job-placement data for graduates, efforts to reduce student debt and other factors.

State Chancellor Frank Brogan said the framework will include the university system’s strategic plan, annual accountability report and university work plans that detail specific goals and challenges.

“All of this forms the basis of our emerging performance funding efforts, which tie university funding to the most critical needs in each university’s work plan,” Brogan said. “That connectivity between performance and funding will serve as the foundation for the board’s decision-making process for future tuition differential fee increase requests made by university boards of trustees.”

That means that if Florida’s public universities want to raise tuition, they will need to meet the established performance measures.

The board of governors, which oversees 12 state universities, meets this week on FGCU’s campus, and university finances and budget projections are on the agenda. Part of the discussion involves reports covering efficiencies, accountability and goals that were submitted by each college.

FGCU is all for adopting a new formula. This year, it is receiving $3,034 less per student than other Florida institutions while maintaining the smallest proportion of reserves in the state system, barely above the 5 percent reserve requirement. That’s a result of historical underfunding and state cuts in recent years.

What matters?

Meanwhile, state reports show FGCU has the second-highest classroom utilization rate, ranks No. 2 in percentage of students who graduate without excess course credits and annually boasts among the top percentages of graduates who find jobs after earning degrees. Provost Ron Toll said FGCU is not afraid of using performance indicators, but he hopes a formula does not overlook unique financial and program needs of each institution.

“We have very carefully stewarded and managed our dollars to offer the highest-quality education possible,” Toll said. “But to base funding entirely on performance after five years of budget cuts presents a difficult conundrum to consider.”

One area where FGCU doesn’t stack up well numerically is the graduation rate. According to the university system, just 21 percent of FGCU undergraduates finish school in four years, and 44 percent earn baccalaureate degrees within six years. FGCU ranks sixth and seventh statewide, respectively, in the two categories.

Although graduation rates are based on 2010-11 data, Toll said, numbers reflect freshmen who started taking classes in the mid-2000s. At that point in FGCU’s evolution, many students stayed at home to knock prerequisites out of the way before transferring to a larger institution that offered specialized degree programs.

“We lost students not because they didn’t like the campus, the quality of education here or faculty,” Toll said. “We lost students because we didn’t offer enough majors.”

FGCU now operates 51 undergraduate and 33 graduate programs.

History

The first signs of a performance-based system emerged last fall when Gov. Rick Scott began asking college presidents for data on costs of academic programs, job-placement rates, and measurements of success and production of graduates in high-demand fields like science, technology, engineering and math. During his keynote address at The News-Press’ Market Watch Education Summit last October, Scott questioned why colleges still offered degrees in certain areas of the liberal arts that don’t directly lead to high-paying careers.

This summer, after universities issued their requests for tuition increases, state leaders also reviewed documents that showed how colleges spent money in previous years, coupling that data with reports on performance. FGCU trustees asked for a 14 percent increase, but the board of governors settled at 12 percent.

At the time, FGCU officials were dumbfounded as to why the state board would reject their request. Toll said they still don’t know any specifics, which led to an unexpected $650,000 cut in FGCU’s proposed budget that forced the college to keep vacant dozens of full- and part-time positions. It also prompted the university to raise class sizes.

A list of performance goals would help clarify funding decisions.

“We have been consulting separately with leaders on the board of governors to develop what might be called a ‘decision matrix’ that will assist the board in measuring each university’s progress toward meeting institutional goals and progress toward system benchmarks,” Brogan said. “At the heart of it all, we believe universities must be able to demonstrate good stewardship of tuition dollars when requesting any future increases.”

By FGCU’s own count, the university has missed $17 million in growth-related funding since the state started slashing college budgets.

“The fact that we’re growing at the wrong time, when there’s no funding, is hurting us,” said student body president Peter Cuderman, a 21-year-old graduate student from Fort Myers. President Wilson Bradshaw plans to update FGCU trustees on program and personnel cuts at their Sept. 18 meeting.

Regardless of what indicators ultimately are included in a funding formula, Toll hopes state leaders consider that FGCU has performed well despite the cuts. He added: “We don’t want to begin behind the starting line.”

 

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