An ambitious university-consolidation plan that folds Florida’s youngest and smallest colleges into the University of Florida was backed by a key House committee on Tuesday, following testy exchanges between state lawmakers and emotional testimony from students.
The proposed committee substitute to HB 7087, sponsored by Higher Education Subcommittee Chair Randy Fine, passed The House Higher Education Subcommittee on a near party-line vote. Democratic Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith, Margaret Good, Evan Jenne, Joseph Geller, Nicolas Duran, Bobby DuBose, Richard Stark, Barbara Watson, Ben Diamond and Kionne McGhee voted no. Republican Rep. Mike LaRose also voted no.
The bill would allow undergraduate and graduate students at New College and Polytechnic to pay the same tuition and fees they were paying before the merger. Those prices would stick with the students until they graduate. New College and Florida Polytechnic would need to submit a merger application, which would have to be approved by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Fine argues the consolidation will save money, but the schools say the bill is rushed and hasn’t gotten enough study.
“I’m doing this now because it is the right thing to do. Spending is not caring. Spending more efficiently is,” he said.
When Fine first rolled out the proposal earlier this month, he had envisioned merging New College with Florida State University, but that plan was dropped days after Gov. Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Jose Oliva said it made more sense to consolidate the liberal arts school with a university that is geographically nearer.
Fine said FSU was taken off the table because it would be more cost-efficient to merge both schools with one university. UF was nailed as the option because it was closer to New College and Florida Polytechnic.
Fine declined to answer if UF wanted the universities or who was consulted in drafting the proposal. While the larger schools had not directly on the record stated support or opposition to legislation, the smaller schools have said none of them were consulted and all of them were in opposition. No one from UF spoke at the committee hearing.
Mark Walsh with the University of South Florida says their preference is to not take on either of these mergers. USF is close to completing a legislative-mandated consolidation of the USF system and taking on more could disrupt that.
Fine argues New College and Florida Poly degrees are too costly to the state. The staff analysis cites a Florida Board of Governors PowerPoint presentation showing the cost of a New College degree is $197,681 and Florida Poly’s is $180,958. He argues that the cost of a UF degree to the state by comparison is just $31,598.
“These universities became universities because of decisions this Legislature made. They didn’t happen on their own. A stork didn’t fly over the state and drop a basket,” he said. “We’re the only ones who can merge them. That is our job.”
Eleanor Young is a sophomore studying computer science at New College. She urged the committee members to “do the Math” on the proposal.
“I’ve crunched the numbers on this proposal,” she said. “It claims a potential savings of only .048% of the state university system budget and as Rep Fine stated earlier, no analysis has been done on the cost of this merger.”
Florida Poly President Randy Avent also disputed Fine’s figures.
“The figure being cited for the total cost per Florida Poly degree was calculated based on our first graduating class, which was our smallest, and includes nonrecurring costs associated with starting the university and building its campus,” he said. “Our projected cost per degree this year is less than half that amount and will continue to decrease as we grow the student body.”
Avent argued their students were graduating in 4 years at a rate 42% higher than the average of the other engineering colleges in the system and they have starting median salaries that are the highest in the system by $12,000.
“We have no idea of what the actual cost savings of this is going to be. None whatsoever,” Jenne said.
Smith echoed Jenne’s concerns.
“We say that we are concerned about costs and yet we don’t recognize the value of these institutions and we don’t even know what, if any, cost savings there will be if we implement this bill. This is a knee-jerk bill,” he said.
Fine argued that New College wasn’t boosting its enrollment numbers after receiving more than $10 million to help do so. He dropped additional statistics in his closing after public comment ended. He argued that New College students were less employable and earned less than UF graduates. He also cited statistics saying that New College and Florida Poly four-year graduation and retention rates are lower than UF.
Fine said he does not know how long the merger would take or the details of the consolidation plans, such as which institution would be identified in diplomas of New College and Florida Polytechnic graduates if the mergers are approved.
The diploma issue was one of the details that concerned students who testified before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
“We don’t know how our credits will transfer because none of this is outlined in the merger and as current students, we are fearful of what that could mean,” Sofia Lombardi, a New College freshman, told the panel.
Fine says running the bill brings him no joy.
“I’ve got news for you, nobody wants their stuff to be cut,” he said. “‘You didn’t consult them, they’re not going to be happy.’ Of course they’re not going to be happy. Find me one thing we’ve ever cut where people get excited about it.”
Fine got the votes he needed for it to pass out of committee. But no public speaker voiced support of it and no one who voted for the bill spoke in favor of it.
News Service of Florida contributed to this report.