More STEM programs could mean higher tuition in reform efforts

Jan 16, 2012

State Universities say they have no problem with the governor’s request to see more science and technology degrees produced. But they also note that they need more money to do it. Lynn Hatter reports Representatives from Florida’s 11 public universities spoke before a highly anticipated House Education Committee where recommendations- or legislation—could be produced.

Governor Rick Scott has called for a series of changes related to the state’s higher education system, especially focusing on the production of STEM degrees—that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Scott announced his higher education platform late last year—raising the ire of the higher education community—and anthropologists, when he alluded that anthropology was not a STEM degree. The anthropology flap aside, University of Florida President Bernie Machen says more STEM is a good idea, and he’s also okay with tying STEM to funding.

“I would be okay with them saying, ‘we will base a portion of your funding on STEM degrees.’ We don’t have to do it, but if we don’t do it we would have funding at risk.”

But Machen says the need to produce more of those degrees shouldn’t come at the expense of other programs.

The University of Florida and Florida State University’s President Eric Barron have been pushing to be allowed to break out of the state’s tuition cap. Even as the state has raised tuition for the last few years, it’s still several thousand dollars below the national average. And the schools say if the state is serious about growing STEM degrees, they should be allowed to charge for them. It costs more to hire a scientist than it does an English teacher. And FSU’s Barron says the state should consider allowing greater tuition authority for STEM programs.

 “And my personal feeling is, I would charge STEM students more, and deliver something better.”

The presidents’ say the state could also encourage more STEM degrees by tying them to the Bright Futures Scholarship program. The presidents spoke before the House Higher Education Committee, where Republican Representative Bill Proctor is Chair. Proctor has been given marching orders by House Speaker Dean Cannon to probe the idea of higher education reform, and what exactly that will look like. Cannon says he’d like to see it too, although, not in the same areas as the governor.

“How does our system work together or fail to coordinate as a system in order to produce the best graduates, and do it in a fashion that’s most tactically advantageous for our state?”

Cannon’s comments hearken back to the higher education turf battles that have taken place over the years, with different schools often operating similar programs in the same areas of the state.  It’s a problem made worse over the years by the legislature allowing community colleges to offer four-year degrees. State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan says that issue certainly needs to be addressed in order to have true reform.

 “It is always harder to try to better organize an operation than it is to say, ‘every man for himself.’ We’ve got to better organize higher education. The Higher Education coordinating council was done to do that.”

The Higher Education Coordinating Council is made up of public, private, for-profit university and community and state college leaders. It has been working on ways to better coordinate degree programs between the schools. 

Brogan also says a way to better organize the system would be to establish different tuition rates at the different universities, and play up each schools strength—be it liberal arts, or STEM programs. He also says that all of the state’s public universities aren’t the same. And lawmakers should look at things like establishing different tuition rates at different schools.

“We continue to treat all 11 as the same, and they aren’t. They are very different institutions, and they should be, but they should be allowed the flexibility to be what they are.”

The Presidents made similar reports to the Senate’s higher education Committee, where Speaker President-Designate Don Gaetz has also called for Higher Ed Reform. What that means and if it will even come out of the 2012 session is still unclear. But the university system says it’s pleased with the opportunity to start the conversation.