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get ahead.”
Aside fromGraham,
businesses have become the
biggest advocates of Florida’s
beleaguered public universities—
partly for the very reason
Wimberly cited. Improving
higher education, they believe,
is how Florida can get ahead,
diversifying its economy and
dodging downturns like this one
in the future. It was businesses that
lobbied Crist to let the universities
increase their tuition, complaining
that Florida ranks 46th in
bachelor’s degree production,
and 47th in degrees in science or
technology—important measures
of its economic competitiveness.
Barely a quarter of adult Floridians
have a bachelor’s degree or higher,
compared tomore than a third in other states.
But even double-digit increases in tuition seemunlikely to
undo the damage of the chronic underfunding of the higher
education systemhere. Constantly feuding with the legislature,
it turns out, was the wrong way for the Board of Regents and
the Board of Governors to win higher state appropriations,
which climbed by just under 65 percent in the last ten years.
That places Florida at 44th among the 50 states. NewYork, by
comparison, increased its higher education spending 76 percent
during the same time period, andNorth Carolina 86 percent.
With less than half the population, North Carolina now spends
about the same as Florida on public higher education.
The same dayWetherell was expounding about the impact
of the budget cuts on FSU, his hometown
Tallahassee Democrat
was editorializing bitterly that Floridians “live in their fantasy of
wanting what they want, but paying naught.” Among the state’s
many retirees especially, saidWetherell, “There’s amentality of,
‘I didmy job inOhio or NewYork, or wherever. We’ve done our
deal on education, and I respect it, but I don’t want to pay for it
anymore.’”
Meanwhile, students continue to trickle down—it’s actually
more of a flood—to even less well-funded community colleges.
More than half of Florida students already end up there,
compared to the national average of 45 percent. “Students
who don’t get into the universities come to places likeMiami
Dade because, I guess, they think we have room,” saidOphelia
Somers, president of the Student Government Association at
the college’s main campus. But room is a long-lost luxury.
“When I first started out here, during registration, you
would have to wait, but it was only 20minutes or so,” Somers
said. “Now you’ll be in a line of 200 people. Class size has gone
up a lot.The classes you need to take are filled way before the
beginning of the semester.They can’t open upmore because
there aren’t enough professors or classrooms.”
And for students at places likeMiami Dade, Padrón said,
increasing the price is more than an inconvenience. “For our
students, raising tuition a few dollars could be the difference
between putting food on the table or not,” he said.The average
family that sends a child to a community college in Florida pays
25 percent of its income to do so, up from18 percent ten years
ago.That is a larger percentage than is paid by families that send
their kids to a four-year public university.
“A lot of people come here just because it’s cheaper,”
said Ricardo Chirito, a freshman and the son of Colombian
immigrants. Chirito could have gone to four-year Florida
International University but chose to attend the vast expanse
of pre-cast concrete that isMiami Dade’s campus in the strip-
mall Miami suburb of Kendall. “I hate to say it,” said Christian
Moreno, Kendall’s student-government head, but if tuition goes
up—and it almost certainly will—“people are going to drop
out.”
Yet when voters statewide were asked inNovember to let
counties have the authority to raise their sales tax half a cent
to pay for community colleges, themeasure—also pushed by
businesses—was defeated. “Some people don’t view community
college as important,” saidMoreno, who graduates inMay from
Miami Dade’s honors programand plans eventually to go to law
school. “They see it as vocational. But the level of maturity here
is probably higher, since students have to juggle a lot of things.”
“Community colleges are constantly underestimated,”
added Somers. “People in Florida—people everywhere—have
a lot of bias against community colleges. But we truly represent
the fact that everybody deserves the right and the privilege to
learn. Wemay get that student froman urban neighborhood,
but that student will come out of here being able to converse
with different cultures and handle diverse situations, and go to
any job and any career, and do well.”
Students also worry that cash-strapped four-year
universities will stop honoring articulation agreements that
guarantee them the right to transfer in as juniors, assuming they
meet certain standards—especially as their numbers continue to
swell. Already, more than 15,000 community college graduates
move on to four-year universities each year.Their concerns may
be warranted. “If you assume that that wave is coming through,
we can’t handle ’em,” saidWetherell. For now, however, he is
sticking to the guarantee.
Currently, with that wave approaching, the four-year
universities overloaded, and businesses pushing for more
graduates with bachelor’s degrees, there are plans to let some
of the community colleges grant four-year degrees in high-
demand fields including nursing and teaching. Eight, including
Miami Dade, already do so.
There is also a proposal to change the way the higher
education system is governed, for the fourth time in ten years.
It calls for an elected commissioner of education, and would do
away with the appointed Board of Education, whose role would
be taken on by the elected cabinet officers. It also would include
a statewide coordinating board for community colleges.
The idea is to eliminate the constant battle for control, and
to refocus attention on fixing Florida’s embattled public higher-
education system.
Or, there could be another solution, Wetherell joked: “You
could also giveme a little hurricane.”
u
JonMarcus is a writer based in Bostonwho covers higher
education in the U.S. for the (UK)
Times Higher Education
magazine.
Miami Dade student leader Ophelia Somers
says class size has increased, and courses
needed for graduation often are not available.
Len Kaufman, Black Star, for CrossTalk