House ed committee speaks with UCF, USF on higher ed reform

Jan 18, 2012

Lawmakers are continuing their review of higher education and talking with more of the state university presidents. The talks are happening in the House Higher Education Committee, where, as Lynn Hatter reports, differences between the schools are starting to emerge, especially when it comes to issues like tuition increases for STEM degrees. 

Not every university is created equal. State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan made that statement when he addressed the House’s Higher Education Committee last week. And that same view held true Tuesday, as lawmakers heard from Presidents at the University of Central and South Florida in the first of two meetings scheduled during the day.

Both schools played up their emphasis on STEM education by highlighting programs like medicine, nursing and engineering. However, they also contradicted earlier testimony on tuition rates. Breaking ranks from Florida State and the University of Florida which supported market rate tuition for STEM programs,  University of Central Florida President John Hitt says he’s not sure about establishing a higher tuition price for STEM degrees.  He worries about pricing out some students with the talent—but not the funding—from being able to enter those programs.

 “I’d hate to think that some bright young woman or man came in and out of concern for what the family could afford, picked a discipline that was cheaper, but not right for them or society.”

The difference in position was noted by House Education Committee chair Representative Bill Proctor.

“Which gets you back to STEM and pricing it at a market rate, which some say would affect enrollment and others say wouldn’t affect enrollment.”

University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft holds a similar view on the market rate tuition idea. She says the issue of program costs is a tricky and sensitive, and different for each school depending on the students it serves.

 “I don’t want to see students with less of an income not be able to enter a field they are talented in.”

Genshaft says she can see a tuition increase, but not so much that financial aid won’t cover it. Governor Rick Scott and other legislative leaders want the state’s higher education institutions to produce more graduates in STEM programs. They say that’s where the jobs are. But Representative Proctor, whose committee is in charge of drafting either recommendations or legislation, questioned whether the increased STEM production is actually needed.

 “Do we actually have a shortage of graduates? Or are we operating on the basis of, if we produce them, business and industry will come? What position are we in?

That question went to UCF President John Hitt. Who said the state has to be targeted in its approach to STEM.

“To what extend to we apply a supply-side approach? I think that works, but within limits. These are expensive degrees to produce, and you don’t want to be producing them so they can go to North Carolina or Georgia or California to work for employers there.”

Proctor:  “So it’s like the physician and residency issues we’re confronting there…”

Right now the state is graduating doctors, but doesn’t have enough hospital training places to put them in. As a result, many Florida-trained physicians leave to practice elsewhere, and take their jobs with them.

The committee continued its conversation on higher education reform and STEM degrees in a second session with the university presidents from Florida A&M, Florida International and Florida Atlantic Universities in an ongoing conversation about potential changes to the state’s college and university system.