The Battle of USF Poly surprises nobody who has been paying attention to higher education in Florida since the mid-20th century.
As far back as the cash-rich 1980s, Sun-Sentinel columnist Robin Branch wrote of legislative leaders who wanted to have “a full service university within walking distance of every Floridian.”
In these leaner, meaner economic times, Lakeland Republican JD Alexander’s goal is more modest, but no less ludicrous. The 12th Florida university that Alexander is birthin’ by whatever means necessary is all about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); no pantywaist arts and anthropology for this Polk County Potentate.
There are also no buildings, no teachers, no students and no accreditation for this STEMwinder of a school, but Alexander, the Scarlett O’Hara of the Senate, will think about that tomorrow.
Alexander's great-grandfather, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, would have considered hard facts on the front end. As Governor of Florida from 1905 to 1909, Broward established the “Board of Control” to provide coherent planning and guidance for higher education in a growing and what he hoped would be great state.
It was a good idea and for a while, it worked.
In the 60s, air-conditioned buildings became financially feasible, and the Board of Control seized the moment. Two-year “state colleges,” then called junior colleges, were built at warp speed, and almost overnight, higher education was within commuting distance of the vast majority of Floridians.
Thanks to Gov. Broward’s vision, cheap gas and teachers who loved what they did, a kid from a poor home could get an education unavailable to previous generations of his or her family.
Five upper-division universities were established to serve those who successfully completed freshman and sophomore years at a junior college. Many students with the best SAT scores and best grades went directly to a university, but many others chose their local junior college to save money, because they weren’t ready to commit to a career goal or because they couldn’t disconnect from a prom date.
Full-time university students paid a flat full-time tuition rate. Students who could handle 16, 18, even 21 hours could graduate quickly and clear the dorm rooms and parking spaces for new students.
Then, Florida’s economy started to grow, and so did the egos of university presidents. Backed by their neighborhood Senate Presidents, House Speakers and Budget Chairmen, upper-division schools expanded to four-year institutions, siphoning off talent from the junior colleges and setting off a cascade of consequences, the USF Poly circus being the latest.
Incentives that once encouraged students to graduate in four years gave way to 12-hour course loads and “six-year plans” that kept bodies in the system, where they served as leverage in the funding wars.
The value of every Florida sheepskin is devalued as more and more high-priced administrators and lobbyists fight over shrinking pots of money available to support the colleges and universities we already have, and the new mouth we’re about to have to feed in Polk County.
Florence Snyder is a Tallahassee-based corporate lawyer who has spent most of her career in and around newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com
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