Halfway through this 2020 Legislative Session, the surprise proposal to merge the very well-regarded Florida Polytechnic University and New College into the University of Florida and Florida State University, respectively, fails close scrutiny on many levels.
This sweeping proposal to dramatically overhaul Florida’s nationally recognized and highly ranked State University System seemingly came out of nowhere this week.
First reported by Florida Politics, the proposal includes language that would end Florida Polytechnic University and New College of Florida as we know them. Well-intentioned as the proposal may be, it represents an undeserved and direct assault on Florida’s youngest and smallest state universities. Understandably it has hit like a bombshell, especially in the Lakeland and Sarasota regions of the two very different but very unique institutions.
Under the proposal, the Lakeland campus of Florida Poly – established in 2012 to develop the state’s future scientists and engineers – would become a satellite campus of the University of Florida, while Sarasota-based New College, the state’s Honors College, would become part of Florida State University.
The leading voice in support of the legislation is Rep. Randy Fine, an intelligent, bold, and (mostly) reasonable lawmaker who says the measure would save taxpayers money by reducing administrative overhead. His main argument is that the cost-per-student at each small university is a great deal higher than for their counterparts throughout the rest of the State University System.
While that shallow statistic may be true at first look, it doesn’t come close to telling the whole remarkable story of these schools.
Florida Poly was created to be laser-focused on top-level STEM education – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. While UF (and other schools) have excellent engineering programs, Florida Poly truly pushes the boundaries of research and applied science, allowing its small student body to work closely with a world-class faculty.
New College is equally unique, but with an entirely different mission – preparing intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement in a rigorous but flexible learning environment. New College produces more Fulbright scholars per capita than Harvard or Yale, for example.
When two previous mostly Republican Legislatures decided to create and designate these universities as independent, lawmakers reasoned that Florida’s future will be that much better off for having the best thinkers and the best STEM graduates involved in getting there.
This proposed committee bill zeroes in on only one statistic: cost per student, essentially measuring the size of the school’s budget divided by how many students it has. It doesn’t say anything about tuition costs for students, average debt coming out of school, employability of graduates, quality of programs, or any other factors that really matter to students, parents, state lawmakers, taxpayers, and the future. The proposal also ignores the significant economic impact these smaller universities have on their communities, regions and our state – completely omitting any facts or math that accurately undermine the flawed reasoning in this institutional raid.
In effect, economies of scale don’t work and should not apply in cases such as this where there are large “sunk costs” simply for existing. “Cost per student” becomes nothing more than a simple measure of campus size. So it isn’t surprising that small, specialized schools would come out unfavorably when compared to flagship universities with 30,000-plus students. But it’s not a fair comparison and it ignores too many other vitally important facts and truths.
Certainly, operating niche schools isn’t cheap. So what do Florida taxpayers get for their investment?
It turns out Florida Poly provides quite a nice return on investment. On a level that really counts, Florida Poly is actually the most affordable public university in Florida, with lower tuition and fees than all the rest. You’d expect a smaller university to have higher staff-to-faculty ratios than larger comprehensive universities, but Florida Poly’s is actually lower than the systemwide average, and still falling. And with student debt weighing so heavily on the younger workforce, Florida Poly proudly boasts that fewer than one-third of its graduates have student debt.
You can’t really put a dollar value on fostering great leaders. That’s why it really isn’t fair to suggest that any single metric – in this case, cost per student – should be the basis for deciding whether these two unique institutions deserve to remain independent.
It’s better to view these schools on factors of performance – on measures that should actually be compared. One of the reasons Florida’s higher ed system is so highly regarded is for the quality and diversity of its programs and institutions.
These small schools, on the factors that matter, punch well above their weights – like renowned boxing champion “Sugar” Ray Leonard. And they deserve the state’s trust to stay in the ring under their independent flags.