House committee votes to abolish New College as independent entity, merge school with FSU
The Florida House advanced a bill Wednesday that would shrink Florida’s university system from 12 to 10 schools by revoking the independent status of New College of Florida in Sarasota and Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.
In pushing to make New College part of Florida State University and Florida Polytechnic part of the University of Florida, state Rep. Randy Fine pointed to the high cost of producing degrees at the two smallest schools in Florida’s university system.
Not including tuition paid by students, Fine said that each degree costs $197,681 in state taxpayer money at New College and $180,958 at Florida Polytechnic University. That compares with an average cost per-degree across all 12 schools in Florida’s university system of $28,208 in taxpayer money, Fine said.
“So we could educate 10 students at one of our other schools — in many of the cases — for what we are spending at these schools; that is a big part of it,” Fine told the House Education Committee, which advanced the bill Wednesday.
The legislation has received a torrent of criticism, though, with lawmakers on the committee saying they received large numbers of phone calls and emails voicing opposition to the bill. In addition to raising concerns about the university consolidation push, speakers at the committee hearing also criticized another aspect of the bill that would change the eligibility requirements for a grant program used by students attending private colleges.
“We received many, many phone calls in opposition to this bill,” said Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat.
Valdes said New College and Florida Polytechnic should have been consulted about the legislation, something Fine said did not happen.
Supporters of keeping New College and Florida Polytechnic independent said that the schools may have higher costs per degree, but said it’s worth it because they enhance the overall university system by providing education options that either are unique, in the case of New College, or especially valuable in the case of Florida Polytechnic.
New College is the state’s public liberal arts honors college. It does not issue grades and has an enrollment of just 724 students. It’s cost per degree is higher because of it’s small size, which ensures that administrative expenses are a greater percentage of the overall budget than at larger schools with more economies of scale.
Florida Polytechnic is the state’s newest university. It was founded in 2012 and focuses exclusively on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees, which tend to cost more to produce.
Supporters of both schools asked lawmakers not to take away their independence.
“I love that New College relied on in-depth evaluations and rigorous course work instead of grades as the public honors college of Florida,” said Flannery French, who received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from New College and currently is applying to master’s and doctoral programs.
“I believe remaining independent will let New College retain its uniqueness,” French added.
A mother of two New College students told the committee that the education provided by the Sarasota school is “outstanding.”
“The honors college setting is one of a kind in Florida,” said the woman, who noted that her son quickly found a job after graduation.
Florida Polytechnic President Randy Avent said the school’s degrees may come at higher price tag but also tend to result in higher paying jobs.
Avent cited a report that found engineering degrees on average cost more than twice as much to produce than other degrees, but noted his students also have a median starting wage of $54,800.
“The bottom line is that Florida Poly is not expensive because it’s small, it’s expensive because it’s 100% STEM,” Avent said.
New College President Donal O’Shea also has criticized the legislation. So have a number of lawmakers in the communities where New College and Florida Polytechnic are located.
Most of the Education Committee members did not express big concerns about the consolidation effort, though. The most vocal criticism came from state Rep. Amber Mariano, a Pasco County Republican.
“Eliminating two of our 12 state universities seems rushed,” Mariano said.
Much of the discussion at the committee hearing instead focused on proposed changes to Florida’s Effective Access to Student Education (EASE) grant program, which helps students attend private nonprofit colleges.
Fine’s bill proposes to limit the $2,841 EASE scholarship to students who are considered financially needy. The means testing proposal brought extensive criticism from private college administrators and students.
The presidents of Keiser University campuses in Sarasota and Jacksonville both testified against the bill, as did representatives for the University of Miami and Flagler College.
“This grant is imperative, it stops our students from having to take out loans for their education, or more loans for their education,” said Flagler College’s financial aid coordinator.
Fine said that taking away scholarships and closing universities might not be popular, but he argued that it is good fiscal policy for the state.
“I was asked to do this job because I have no allegiance or loyalty to anything but what is right,” Fine said, adding: “See, there’s no one whose going to stand up here and say, hey it’s great to take away people’s scholarships, or it’s great to close a university; that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing.”
Fine noted that New College and Florida Polytechnic likely will continue in some form as satellite campuses, although what they would look like under the umbrellas of FSU and UF was not discussed. Representatives of FSU and UF did not speak Wednesday, but Fine said they were consulted about the bill.
“These campuses don’t necessarily go away but there will be efficiencies,” Fine said.
Fine’s bill currently does not have companion legislation in the Senate, but Senate President Bill Galvano — whose district includes New College — said he is willing to consider the consolidation proposal.
"I think it's worthy having the discussion and I'm open to that dialogue with the speaker and the Florida House," Galvano said.
“You know, both of those universities started out as the University of South Florida,” Galvano added, referring to past iterations of New College and Florida Polytechnic as USF satellite campuses. “These type of discussions are healthy from time to time."
USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau reporter John Kennedy and Tallahassee Democrat report Byron Dobson contributed to this report