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State colleges take stock after 'challenging' session

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(MGN)

While state universities and public schools have seen significant funding increases in the last two years, Florida’s state college system has had less success in securing money in the annual budget process.

Last year, lawmakers cut $30 million from the system’s overall budget of more than $2 billion. In the newly approved budget for the 2018-2019 academic year, the Legislature restored $6.7 million of the cut.

But most of the other major budget requests from the system, which includes 28 state and community colleges, did not win support from the Legislature.

That included a $75 million initiative to produce more “workforce” degrees and certificates to meet regional economic needs, a $50 million plan to recruit and retain faculty and a $67 million initiative for counseling and other services to help students complete their degrees in a timely manner.

The Legislature rejected the state colleges’ request for $40 million in state performance funding, which would have been a $10 million increase.

In contrast, the new state budget increases performance funding in the university system by $20 million and provides $91 million, a $20 million increase, to help the schools recruit “world-class” faculty and researchers. The overall $5 billion university budget will increase by $139 million in 2018-2019.

Ava Parker, president of Palm Beach State College and head of the policy and advocacy group for the 28 college presidents, said she supports increased funding for the universities but questions the funding strategy for colleges.

Parker, who served more than a decade on the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities, noted the role that state colleges play in providing students for the universities.

Some two-thirds of Florida high school graduates who went into the higher-education system in the 2014-2015 academic year enrolled in state colleges, which serve about 800,000 full- and part-time students each year, according to the state Department of Education. The data also show a majority of the juniors and seniors in the university system are former state college students.

Parker, who is scheduled to become chairwoman of the state colleges’ Council of Presidents in June, said not adequately funding the college system could have repercussions for universities.

“It would appear that you are actually crippling the universities in some way in that you’re not supporting the foundation for those students who will very soon be your students,” Parker said in an interview with The News Service of Florida.

“While I applaud the Legislature for their emphasis on higher education, and particularly the universities, I think they’re short-sighted when they do not provide the resources to prepare such a large percentage of our (future university students),” she said.

A factor in the Legislature’s reluctance to back many of the state-college budget initiatives was a two-year struggle between the college system and Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who pushed several major policy changes, including a cap on baccalaureate degrees, that the colleges opposed.

Lawmakers passed those policy changes in legislation that Gov. Rick Scott vetoed in 2017. Scott argued the changes would undermine the college system.

A Senate bill (SB 540) with the policy changes, which also included a statewide oversight board for the college system, stalled in the 2018 session. The consequences were that Senate leaders were not likely to look favorably on many of the college initiatives.

A minor but telling example of that was that the House passed a bill (HB 619) that would have let Florida Keys Community College and North Florida Community College drop the “community” label, which has been done by the majority of state colleges over time. But the bill never received a hearing in the Senate.

Parker said it was important for the colleges to oppose proposed policy changes that the presidents believed could hurt the system but that it has made the last two years in the legislative process “challenging.”

“I think it has been challenging for us because there have really been two sides to the coin. There is the budget and there is policy,” she said.

On a positive note, Parker said college presidents are supporting a measure (Proposal 83) now before the Florida Constitution Revision Commission that would provide constitutional authority to the state college system.

Parker and other presidents have said embedding the state college system in the Constitution would put the colleges on equal footing with universities and public schools, which are already authorized in the document.

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