State Colleges Facing Year of 'Stagnation' and 'Lost Opportunity'
While state universities are starting the new academic year in July with a major financial boost, Florida's 28 state colleges will face a budget cut.
The 12 universities will see an increase of more than $250 million in state support in the 2017-18 academic year, including a $20 million increase in performance funding and $121 million in new programs to help schools hire top-level professors and to reward top-performing business, law and medical schools.
But the new budget left the 28 state colleges with $25 million less than they received in the prior year --- and that doesn't include Gov. Rick Scott's vetoes, which eliminated more than $13 million in projects and spending for the schools.
Embedded in the cut is a $30.2 million reduction in funding for remedial education for the colleges.
David Armstrong, president of Broward College, the second-largest school in the system, said the new budget sets up a year of “lost opportunity” and “stagnation” at the state colleges, which serve about 800,000 full- and part-time students across the state.
Armstrong, a former state college system chancellor, said while the university budget increase will allow schools like the University of Florida to launch an ambitious plan to hire 500 new faculty members and reduce class sizes, it will be a different story at the state colleges.
“My guess is at a number of our colleges, class sizes will possibly increase this year because of budget cuts and vacant positions will be held open in some cases,” Armstrong said. “Our students deserve better.”
Despite the cut in remedial education funding, the colleges will still have to provide tutoring and other academic support for students needing help in college-level math and English classes, said Thomas Lobasso, president of Daytona State College and the new chairman of the college system's council of presidents.
“The thing that hasn't changed is our mission. Our mission is open access,” Lobasso said. “Those students still come to us.”
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, pushed the higher-education package this year in an effort to help elevate state universities to an “elite” level, arguing they are critical to the growth in Florida's economy.
The state colleges provide an equally critical economic role in training and graduating “skilled workers in health care, information technology and other areas where there are great jobs needing to be filled in our communities across the state,” Armstrong said.
“We shouldn't have policies and budgets that divide us and create elite universities and underfunded state colleges,” he said. “When we go to a hospital for health care, it is just as important to have sufficient quality nurses and technicians from our state colleges as it is a qualified doctor.”
State college leaders drew some solace from Scott's veto of a higher-education bill (SB 374), with the governor arguing policy improvements for the universities were coming “at the expense” of the state college system. Among its provisions, the bill would have capped enrollment in baccalaureate-degree programs at the colleges, something also pushed by Negron.
Scott, who noted he and his wife are graduates of a community college system, said while state support for the colleges has increased by about 32 percent since he took office in 2011, he will support a budget increase for the system when the Legislature meets next year.
“It's important to continue to fund them,” Scott said earlier this month. “They have great results. We have a session starting in January and in my budget I will be proposing more funding for them.”
The state college system budget cuts will be offset by some degree when the state Board of Education later this summer distributes about $30 million in performance-based funding to the schools, which will also be eligible to use another $30 million in institutional performance funding.
Armstrong said he expects his school to receive about $2.5 million in performance funding, but Broward College will still face a $2 million reduction in its operating budget, which also has to cover increases in utilities, health insurance and other business costs.
Additionally, because state college enrollment is countercyclical to the economy, fewer students tend to enroll when the job market is strong, resulting in a decrease in tuition revenue for some schools. In March, state economists estimated about a 4,000-student decline in enrollment statewide, a 1.2 percent reduction.
On the positive side, the state colleges will benefit from a record increase in need-based aid in the new academic year that will help more students cover tuition and fee costs.
The move to cover full tuition and fees for the top-performing Bright Futures students, known as academic scholars, will have minimal impact in the state college system, where few of those students are enrolled.
But the $121 million increase in the Florida student-assistance grants, the state's largest need-based aid program, will help lower-income students attend both colleges and state universities.
Additionally, Congress has approved an extension of federal Pell grants, the largest federal aid program, to summer courses, which could help students next summer.
“Our Legislature deserves kudos for the increase in need-based financial aid,” Armstrong said.