By LLOYD DUNKELBERGER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
State colleges were dismayed by a legislative session that resulted in a major funding increase for state universities while colleges had their budgets slashed by $30 million, a college president told the Florida Board of Education on Tuesday.
“To say that our presidents were disappointed and our boards of trustees were disappointed in a year when there was such an excess of funding toward the universities and not toward the state colleges is an understatement,” Ed Meadows, president of Pensacola State College, told the state board, which was meeting in Miami.
Meadows, representing the 28 college presidents, said state colleges receive less than a quarter of the higher-education spending but handle more than 800,000 students while the universities have about 350,000 students and receive the bulk of the funding.
“It’s also ironic that they’re giving universities more money to do better, and they are expecting the Florida college system to do more with less,” Meadows said.
The college leaders are most upset by the Legislature’s decision to cut $30 million for remedial, or developmental, education in the new $82.4 billion budget, which is expected to take effect July 1 after going to Gov. Rick Scott. Lawmakers finalized the budget May 8 as the annual legislative session ended.
Legislative leaders have defended the funding cut, citing a 2013 state policy that curbed the ability of colleges to use remedial courses, which carry no college credits, instead of enrolling students in college-credit classes. But college leaders say it did not change the fact that many students enter the “open access” state college system lacking some of the skills to handle college-level classes.
“Yes, our developmental courses have decreased, but the students are still there,” Meadows said, saying the change has forced the colleges to find “innovative” ways to support remedial students, including using labs and tutors, which add costs to the classroom.
“A $30 million cut to our system is unacceptable to us in terms of the fairness of how the funds available to higher education should be distributed,” Meadows said.
Meadows also warned that the cuts could undermine progress of the college system, which has earned national awards for accessibility and affordability, as well as its ability to successfully move students on to four-year degrees. More than half of the juniors and seniors in the Florida university system come from the state colleges, which historically were known as community colleges.
“I think time will tell if the Legislature has made a serious blunder in terms of the Florida college system’s ability to get students where they need to be to be successful,” Meadows said.
Other major changes are looming for the colleges, including the system’s relationship with the state Board of Education. A pending law (SB 374) would create a new State Board of Community Colleges to oversee the 28 schools, which are now under the Board of Education.
Board of Education member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey said she was “proud” of the state college system’s achievements, including working with the K-12 system to move students into colleges and then onto universities.
“It’s not an expense, it’s an investment,” she said.
Meadows said the colleges have had a good working relationship with the Board of Education.
“Each institution, whether small or large, we all have particular issues that may differ or be very similar with an open-access institution,” Meadows told the board. “I think each one of you understands the challenges that we have as a system.”
Meadows said other changes the state colleges will face under the recently passed legislation will be revised performance standards and a 15 percent cap on baccalaureate degree enrollments at each school.
But overall, Meadows said the colleges were upset that the new budget and legislation, touted “as one of the greatest education packages in the recent history of Florida, has failed and has overlooked the fact that we have the best (state college) system in the nation and we’re not recognized in the funding process.”