Home » Features » Here's Why State Lawmakers May Change Florida's Higher Education System


Here's Why State Lawmakers May Change Florida's Higher Education System

Imagine you alone get to decide the fate of higher education in Florida. 

Maybe you’d keep it as is, with 28 state colleges serving a majority of students, even though universities get four times the money that they do. The state colleges—once called community colleges—would continue to take in most of the state’s minority and poor students. The colleges would train them to start careers in things like nursing, robotics, cybersecurity and aviation. A couple years later, they’d also send many of them on to the state’s 12 universities. 

Or perhaps you’d remake the system to help the top students. You could take money from the state colleges and give it to the universities, in the hopes that Florida and Florida State would rise in the rankings. Fewer students would benefit, and poor kids would have a tougher road to getting into college. But a choice few would graduate with degrees that might someday be equal to those from Michigan or Berkeley. 

The question isn’t a parlor game. It’s exactly what the Florida Legislature has set out to do. The idea fundamentally remakes higher education in the state, with less of an emphasis on serving the masses and more on elevating a few of the very brightest. 

Have they done what’s morally right? 

That’s a question you’ll have to answer. 

But will Florida colleges and universities be better off? 

On that point, you’ll find the answer, according to experts, is almost certainly no.

Greg Haile grew up in Queens, in a neighborhood where going to school was about getting through the metal detectors, about making it there without someone pulling a gun on him, which happened twice. When he got into college, he quickly realized his high school education did little to prepare him, and he had nobody to help get him ready for what was expected. “I didn’t know anyone in my family who had gone to or certainly graduated from college,” Haile recalls.

At Arizona State University, he enrolled in remedial classes, and it saved him from flunking out. In time, Haile became a good student, and then an exceptional one. He ended up at Columbia Law School and then landed a job with a premier law firm. 

In 2011, he took a job as the general counsel and vice president of public policy and government affairs at Broward College. One of his tasks is to lobby for the college, and soon he found himself fighting for the very remedial classes that helped save him from failing out. 

The Florida Legislature began its rewriting of the higher-education system in 2014 by scrapping a law that required less-prepared students to take remedial classes. It may seem like a small change, Haile says, but requiring students to take remedial classes helped prevent students most in jeopardy from failing out.

With the remedial classes no longer a requirement, far fewer students enrolled in them. Since 2014, the colleges have seen a 59 percent decrease in remedial classes, from 155,000 students to 60,000. 

And this was merely step one in the changes. In November 2015, Republicans in the Florida Senate picked Joe Negron to be their next president. Negron set out to drastically cut funding for Florida colleges, defining it as one of his top priorities. Negron promised instead to increase funding to universities in hopes of elevating them into the top state schools in the country.

Cuts to Florida’s colleges come in the face of widespread research that suggests it will hurt higher education overall in the state, according to experts on both sides of the aisle. 

That’s especially true since Florida’s college system is widely regarded as perhaps the best in the nation, says Josh Wyner, vice president of the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan think tank. Since the Aspen Institute began ranking state and community colleges three years ago, Florida schools have dominated the list. 

“The notion of cutting money from Florida community colleges when they’re performing better than any other community system just isn’t wise,” Wyner says.  

In addition, Negron’s idea of pouring more money into universities in hopes of creating top-flight schools has been proven not to work. Studies by the Century Foundation discovered that increased funding to universities rarely gets passed along to students. Instead, that extra money is typically used to boost salaries, which rarely improves rankings, says Preston Cooper, education data analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., research organization that’s often labeled as conservative. 

“It just doesn’t make much sense to pour money into universities with the goal of making them better,” Cooper says.
“University performance can’t be changed so easily. Rankings are very hard to influence, and it’s not simply a matter of increased funding.”

Florida isn’t alone in this. Several states have begun siphoning money from state and community colleges to afford increases to universities. Instead, Cooper says, states should be looking at where students are going and send money there. In Florida, more than 855,000 students a year take state college courses, making up three out of five higher-education students. 

Those lobbying on behalf of Florida colleges made the same points to Negron, and why he ignored them isn’t entirely clear. Negron’s office declined multiple requests for an interview for this article. His best explanation of his position against colleges came in June in a written statement he issued to the press. In it, Negron claimed four-year degrees offered by the state colleges directly compete with universities.

Negron’s attack on the state colleges came despite a long friendship with Edwin R. Massey, president of Indian River State College. Massey, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, became one of the most vocal opponents to Negron’s cuts. Negron’s unrelenting assault on the college system became something Tallahassee insiders said might have become personal between the two men. 

Either way, just how much Negron wanted to cut the colleges became clear in the 2017 legislative session. Bills endorsed by Negron as Senate president proposed cutting the state colleges by $87 million. Meanwhile, Florida universities would have seen a $296 million funding increase. Negron also wanted to force widespread changes to the way the state colleges operate, including limiting the number of four-year degrees they could offer. 

And Negron proposed forcing the state colleges to change their names. Florida’s state colleges ditched the “community” moniker in 2008 when they began offering four-year degrees. There’s also a social stigma with the phrase “community college” that Negron’s bill would have forced back on the higher-education system.

With Republicans in charge in Tallahassee, it seemed certain the colleges would be looking at painful cuts. In the end, Negron’s bill went to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk. Elected during the tax-cutting Tea Party wave, Scott’s support seemed certain. 

But the governor in June vetoed Negron’s higher-education bill. In a letter explaining his decision, Scott wrote that it was his own experience that led to the decision. “When I was growing up, my family struggled to make ends meet,” Scott wrote. “Before my service in the Navy, I was able to attend community college while my wife, Ann, worked to support us. After I returned from serving in the Navy, Ann was also able to continue her education at our local community college.”

 The state colleges weren’t entirely spared. Negron was still able to shave $30.2 million from the colleges in the state’s budget. As the Legislature went back to work in December, the state colleges were again targeted. Negron publicly promised to support a new bill called the “Community College Competitiveness Act of 2018.” Even more limiting than the bills filed in 2017, the act would allow only 20 percent of state college students to seek four-year degrees. Oversight would also shift from local control to a new 13-member panel appointed by the governor. The bill, if it could make it past a veto by the governor in 2018, would also change the state colleges back to “community” colleges.

With the new bill, it seemed certain that Negron would also be after his other goal: more budget cuts to the state colleges.

As the state colleges get ready for this year’s budget fight, they’re also still trying to figure out how to adjust to the 2017 cuts. At Palm Beach State College, administrators had to figure out how to lose about $1 million. Some of the cuts were directed by the Legislature, including the college’s Small Business Development Center. Lawmakers also dropped the Center for Applied Ethics, which, perhaps ironically, worked to train elected officials on how to be more accountable. 

“It totally caught us by surprise that they would cut those programs,” says Ava Parker, Palm Beach State’s president. 

Parker grew up in the tiny Panhandle town of Milton, where her mom, a guidance counselor, insisted her kids were destined for college. “It wasn’t a question of if we were going to go to college, it was a question of where,” Parker says. She landed a scholarship to the University of Florida, and by the time she graduated from law school, Parker had only a small student loan to pay off. But she also recognizes that’s rare, and that most students in Florida don’t have the same chances. 

“A large number of our students rely on the state college system, and they wouldn’t be in college without it,” Parker says. “Philosophically, these are the students who need the help the most.”

The statistics support that. A majority of the state’s poor higher-education students end up at state colleges. At Miami Dade College, for instance, nearly one in 10 students grew up in a poor family. One study found that a third of those students moved up income brackets, and five percent of them went from the bottom to top earners. 

The state colleges also take in a vast majority of minorities. Just six percent of university students are African-American. At state colleges, more than half of all students are minorities. Three of them—Miami Dade, Broward and Valencia—rank in the top 10 in the country for the number of Hispanic students who graduate. And Miami Dade, Broward and Jacksonville’s Florida State College are among the top 10 colleges in the nation for the number of African-American graduates they yield. 

Photo courtesy of Palm Beach State College

Meanwhile, state college baccalaureate graduates are more likely to find jobs than university graduates. About three-quarters of university graduates in Florida land jobs after graduation, while 88 percent of four-year state college graduates end up employed. 

Those kinds of figures are why the colleges have gotten so much support from business leaders. When Negron proposed cutting the college budgets, more than 150 businesses and government agencies on the Treasure Coast penned letters in support of Indian River State College. 

That’s in part because Florida colleges have proven to be more adaptable than universities to what’s needed in the workforce, says James Donnelly, founder and CEO of Castle Group, the Plantation-based company that manages homeowners’ associations. Donnelly is also chairman of the Broward Workshop, which two years ago studied workforce readiness of college graduates. 

“We were puzzled why our legislators would want to move money from state colleges that are more adoptable to what employers need,” Donnelly says. “To take a dime away from them was unconscionable. It was more about ego than it was about making our universities better.” 

 The need for good state colleges has also become clear to Bob Swindell, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce. When trying to convince companies to relocate, Swindell is often asked about whether Broward College would be willing to create career paths to help train employees. In response, Swindell brings Broward College President David Armstrong Jr. to meetings. 

“Armstrong’s answer is always, ‘We’ll get this done. Our graduates will be ready,’” Swindell says. For instance, Broward College has shifted resources to producing lab technicians and aviation-related degrees in response to demands from local companies. 

Swindell and Donnelly are part of a lobbying effort to get the funding cuts to state colleges restored. But administrators at the colleges fear they may instead be looking at another round of cuts. 

“We are not just trying to get the money back, but we are trying to protect ourselves from more cuts,” Parker says from Palm Beach State. “We are universally recognized as the best college system in the nation, and then to step back and cut our budget, it just doesn’t add up.”

The Graduates

Perhaps the best cases state colleges can make for their existences come from their students. We reached out to a few to find out why they chose colleges over traditional universities. 

Karl Sully Guerrier, 24

Palm Beach State College graduate

Former Miami Dade College student and Palm Beach State College graduate Karl Sully Guerrier was 10 when doctors diagnosed his mom with multiple sclerosis, and they immigrated to the U.S. to improve her chances in treatment. Sully Guerrier didn’t speak English, and he says he overcame the culture shock by diving into schoolwork. 

“I was very competitive to learn as much as I could as a student,” he says. “In school, that was my chance to prove myself.” His top grades and extracurricular activities made him seem destined for the Ivy League, until the summer after junior year when his mom passed away. “Obviously, I just wasn’t as academically driven as I had been,” he says. “I was still mentally trying to process losing my mom.” He never applied for scholarships and did little to get into a good college. So after taking a couple years off, he enrolled at Miami-Dade College.

 In the summer of 2015 he transferred to Palm Beach State College and, in the honors college, worked toward an associate’s degree in PR. This fall, he started at Columbia University, where he has a full-ride scholarship to work toward his four-year degree. 

Now, his three sisters—one 18-year-old and two 22-year-old twins—are enrolled at Palm Beach State. Sully Guerrier says the four of them do it for the mom they lost. “This is about honoring her sacrifice to come to this country,” he says. “This is all about her.”

Heather Gelety, 41

Indian River State College graduate

Heather Gelety tried the university life right out of high school. But the huge classes and being away from her home in Fort Pierce were too much. “It was completely overwhelming,” she recalls. “A year later I was back home.”

She didn’t try college again until decades later. With three kids, going away to a university just wasn’t possible. And she knew an online degree wouldn’t happen. “I knew that if I was home, I was mommy, and I couldn’t concentrate on my classes,” she says. 

Instead, she enrolled at Indian River State College. She earned an associate’s degree and then, in August, got her bachelor’s in human resources. Next up, she has her sights set on a graduate’s degree in social work and a career as a school counselor. 

“It’s exciting for me that I have this opportunity to go to college, and it’s not squashed simply because I can’t go away to a university,” Gelety says.

Joseph Morel, 28

Palm Beach State College graduate

Two years after joining the Marines, Joseph Morel found himself heading back home to Palm Beach County with a medical discharge. The Marine who took his spot died not long after in an IED attack. The realization of it, that it could have been him, shook Morel.

“When I came back, I kind of lost it,” Morel says. “I didn’t know what to do, and I spent the next six months just sitting in my room in the dark.”

Things started to come around when he helped his mom open a new bakery. Then he got into paddleboarding, which helped him to process things, and he started wondering what was next. He slowly began enrolling in a few classes at Palm Beach State College. 

Now, he’s working on an associate’s degree in business administration and another in electrical power technology. He graduated this fall with the first degree and expects the second to happen by 2019. “I’m going to work in renewables, probably solar. My plan is to build the third-world a new energy grid,” Morel says.

Some days he feels like it has taken him too long to get going on a career, 10 years out of high school. And some days he feels very lucky. “I don’t have the luxury to spend $30,000 a year, and I really couldn’t see myself going off to a university at the age of 28,” he says. “For me, honestly, the state college has been a godsend.”

George Guerrero, 52

Broward College graduate

George Guerrero’s first attempt at college ended early when he decided instead to join the Air Force. He became a maintenance worker on F-16 fighters and, afterward, got a job as a project manager for several large companies. He had a career on the upward track until two years ago, when he lost his job.

“I never thought I needed a degree until I got laid off. Everybody wanted a bachelor’s degree. I was like, ‘A bachelor’s degree? Really? I’ve been working all my life,’” he recalls.  

Living in Broward, he has a wife and son, so it wasn’t like he could head off to one of the state’s universities for a couple years. He enrolled instead at Broward College, where he earned an associate’s degree in May. Now he’s working on his bachelor’s. “For me, it was affordable, and it was the only option locally,” he says. “I probably just wouldn’t have done it otherwise.” 

His wife, Tatiana, has now joined him at Broward College. She moved from Colombia in 2009 knowing little English, and now she’s working toward an associate’s. 

And Guerrero has landed a job as a senior global project manager. While he no longer needs that bachelor’s, he’s not giving up now.

Photos courtesy of Broward College