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This conservative New College alum urges the Legislature to dig deeper on ‘cost per student’ metrics before deciding school’s fate

The questions the Legislature should be asking before merging universities.

My first experience “lobbying” was in an impromptu meeting in the spring of 2001 with then-Gov. Jeb Bush, a leader I admired then and now. It went something like this:

Me: “I’m a New College graduate and I hope you support the bill to make the
college independent.”

Bush: “You went to New College? But you’re wearing shoes!?”

Despite poking fun, Bush did in fact support and sign the bill making New College independent.

There were a lot of good reasons why its autonomy from the University of South Florida was proposed by Senate President John McKay, House Speaker Tom Feeney, and the Governor. Some of these reasons were philosophical, others pragmatic.

But the results of this decision were clear: The very year following independence, New College sprang to its current position ranked among the top handful of public liberal arts colleges nationally. Today, New College produces more Fulbright scholars per capita than the likes of Harvard or Yale, and is acclaimed for the high portion of alumni who go on to earn graduate degrees. It was not a mistake that New College was granted autonomy, and it is not a coincidence that the successes of this small, different school have only amplified since.

Yet less than 20 years later, New College’s independence is being challenged — this time, by other state leaders who I have also worked with and admire, including state Rep. Randy Fine.

Fine’s motivations for proposing to consolidate New College into Florida State University (and Florida Polytechnic University into the University of Florida) are well-intentioned and grounded in his desire to best serve the taxpayers of this state.

They aren’t related to concerns with the college’s academic system, performance measures, tuition rates, or average debt incurred. Rather, his argument relates to the fact that small schools such as New College and Florida Polytechnic cost more to operate for their size.

This is true — but it’s the WHY they cost more that matters.

Motivated by my dual roles as a proud alum and as a partner in a communications firm that currently works with New College, I spent the weekend compiling data, running some models, and exploring the factors that may contribute most immediately to cost-per-FTE-student figures at Florida colleges. Here’s a rundown of what I found:

— The percent of students living on campus relates strongly and significantly to costs-per-student in Florida and nationally:

— Nine out of 10 (89%) New College students live on campus, in keeping with New College’s statutory obligation to be a residential college — a ratio mirrored at top liberal arts and Ivy League schools nationally.

— Within Florida’s state university system, the next closest to New College has just 46% of its students living on campus, and at one institution it’s just 6%. Overall, barely more than 1 in 5 (22%) students at other Florida universities live on campus.

— Not surprisingly, the portion of students living on campus is strongly related to the portion of costs spent on administration, among other things. Having more students living on campus requires more staff, more dorms and facility maintenance, more student life resources, and countless other things that contribute to a safe, productive environment.

— Student-faculty ratios and in-person classes matter, too:

— New College employs twice as many faculty members per student as the average of other state universities: 10 to 1, compared with the state’s average of 21 to 1. This is good for students and good for education, but it increases costs per student.

— New College courses are taught face-to-face, something that is becoming less common at other universities as online class offerings grow, and is directly associated with higher costs per student.

Other questions that should be asked include:

— Right now, there is no consistent approach to how Florida universities track and report administrative costs. If cost per student is a valid measure of a college’s right to exist, shouldn’t lawmakers first establish consistent expectations for how administrative cost data is collected, enabling reliable comparisons?

— If a college that fills a specific niche role with outstanding outcomes necessarily costs more per student in the process of fulfilling its statutory mission, should it be penalized for doing so?

It’s a conservative principle to be careful with tax dollars. It’s also a conservative principle to collect data in the careful pursuit of these savings. It will take comprehensive analysis to determine whether consolidation would actually produce the economies that legislative champions are seeking.

This year is my 18th working in Florida politics. My life has been enriched by the people I’ve gotten to know along the way, including Senate President Bill Galvano, one of my earliest mentors, and Rep. Fine, both of whose sentiments, energy, and intellect I respect greatly.

I hope they and the Legislature see the value in digging deeper before changing the structure of two institutions that are fulfilling the very missions they were given — and making our state stronger for it.

___

Karen Cyphers is the Vice President of Research at Sachs Media Group

Written By

Karen Cyphers, Ph.D., is a partner and vice president of research at Sachs Media Group. She can be reached at karen@sachsmedia.com.

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