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Florida Colleges Plan to Lead Nation in Graduation Rates

By: Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida
By: Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 17, 2012 -

Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida

Florida's 28 state and community colleges say they have a plan to make the state the first in the country to reach the national goal of doubling graduation rates by the year 2020 – and they think Gov. Rick Scott will back their play.

Valencia College President Sandy Shugart on Tuesday told the Florida Board of Education to expect a proposal in the fall. If approved, Shugart said, the four-year strategic plan would also make Florida the top-ranked college system for affordability, job placement, accountability and partnerships with high schools and universities.

The Florida College System, which formerly was the community-college system, will request a 35 percent increase in state funding to reach those goals, but both Shugart and St. Petersburg College President Bill Law said they thought Scott would approve, since their plan had sprung from discussions with him.

"The budget that we got from the Legislature this year was for all practical purposes the same level that the governor originally proposed, without tuition increases," Law said. "We would not have had to raise tuition."

Scott opposes tuition increases. Shugart said the colleges also can make Florida first in affordability by tying tuition hikes to rises in the cost of living.

"There are still many in the state, in other sectors of higher education, who believe that it's underpriced and that, at least in their sector, they need to continue to have aggressive tuition increases," Shugart said. "We've reached a point – I think, a tipping point – in our system where we'd like to say, 'We need to restrain the growth in tuition.'"

Last month Florida's public universities got permission to raise tuition from 9 to 15 percent, depending on the school.

According to the Florida college system, the cost of graduating after four years at a university is $39,095. Graduating from a four-year college costs $23,647, while graduating after two years in college followed by two at a university costs $31,061.

Board of Education member Roberto Martinez said the colleges should get more state funding because they're cost-effective.

"Imagine how much more value we would be delivering if we were to better fund it," Martinez said. "I think that we need to provide more funding. If we're not going to do the tuition increase, it's got to come from somewhere."

Board Chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan was cautious but interested.

"I think it's a big ask to have a 35 percent baseline increase in a budget – with no paperwork yet," she said. "So I'm anxious for the paperwork."

Shugart said the FCS is well poised to meet the proposed goals.

"We believe it's possible to set objective goals to be first in the nation in college education," he said, "and achieve them within a relatively short time frame, and with relatively modest resources."

Florida colleges are already performing well, according to the Southern Regional Education Board, which reported in May that Florida had the highest three-year graduation rate in the southeast at 35.5 percent. The SREB average was 18.4 percent. State tuition, meanwhile, was second-lowest in the region at $2,235.

Law, however, warned that the colleges can't operate in a vacuum, and said the state "won't get healthy until the universities get healthy. We cannot have a state that is not functioning at a much higher level in university education.

"But right now it's our time to argue our case," he said.


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