Fla. university panel debates cap on new freshmen

Sep 25, 2008


Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. -

A parent of two state university students Thursday urged the Board of Governors to keep the cap it put on incoming freshman enrollment last year to maintain quality that's already starting to slip away due to tight finances.

The parent is outgoing State University System Chancellor Mark Rosenberg. He said his son is taking only online courses this semester because he couldn't get into any conventional classes, and his daughter, who wants to major in dance, may transfer from Florida International University, where both are students, because it shut down its dance department.

"It has hurt and it's real," Rosenberg said.

He spoke against a proposal to remove the cap, but that motion was withdrawn and the contentious issue was put on hold until the board's November meeting.

Rosenberg said taking into consideration inflation and enrollment growth, Florida spends $4,500 less per university student than it did in 1989 when his daughter was born. That's meant larger classes and more teaching by part-time instructors and graduate students.

If the board unfreezes the cap, which now limits new freshman enrollment to 38,500 annually at all 11 public universities, the situation only will get worse, Rosenberg said. He said lifting the limit also may squeeze out students who transfer from community colleges after earning two-year degrees.

"The restriction on growth, on freshman enrollments, that you decided upon was a line in the sand for quality," Rosenberg said.

Some board members, though, argued the system should put access ahead of quality. If not, Florida's universities will cater only to the intellectually elite, said board member Charles Edwards during a meeting of the panel's Strategic Planning and Academic Oversight Committee. He said enrollment decisions should be left to boards of trustees at each of the universities.

Board member Norman Tripp agreed with Edwards. He said in November he also would seek removal of another cap that limits out-of-state enrollment to 10 percent at each school.

Board Chairwoman Sheila McDevitt urged caution, saying she already gets calls from Floridians whose children have been turned away, wondering who was taking their places.

The Legislature is trying to deal with the access issue by converting some of Florida's community colleges into state colleges offering four-year degrees. Nine community colleges have been selected for a pilot program that began in July.

The full board approved a series of recommendations to a task force that lawmakers established to study the issue. They include calls for common course prerequisites among the three different types of schools and preservation of the current two-plus-two system that eases the transfer of community college graduates to universities.

McDevitt told the board she would soon appoint a search committee to seek a replacement for Rosenberg, who announced Monday that he will step down in February and return to the faculty at Florida International.

"We may need to be focused more on strong leadership, managerial and political skills," McDevitt said in an interview.

By political skills, she said she intended to find someone who can work with the Legislature, governor and the various universities. That's the trend nationally with university presidents as well as the heads of state systems, McDevitt said.

The board has had a rocky relationship at times with lawmakers. That includes a lawsuit the board and former Gov. Bob Graham have filed against the Legislature over the issue of which body has the authority to set tuition.

McDevitt said the lawsuit, a sore point with lawmakers, has been dormant and that she hopes it can be settled.

"I would prefer not to dwell on that topic because it's not constructive for us," she said.

The board voted to seek a special allocation of $24 million to cover unexpected utility costs during the current budget year. That's in addition to $30 million more for utilities next year that the board asked for in its annual operating budget request last month.

Also Thursday, it approved capital outlay requests for next year. They include $307 million from utility taxes designated for education construction and $76.6 million in general state revenue to match an equal amount from private donors.

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