TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Without a tuition increase in more than five years and little growth in state funding, Florida’s state and community colleges are seeking more than $220 million in new money for next academic year.
The college system, which includes 28 schools across the state, outlined the funding request this month to the Florida Board of Education. The board is scheduled to vote next month on the budget request, which will be considered during the 2019 legislative session, which starts in March.
The largest funding request includes $125 million for “workforce” initiatives aimed at helping students earn degrees in areas related to health care, manufacturing, logistics, aviation, finance and other high-demand professions.
Another $87 million will go toward “student success” programs, including increasing the number of academic counselors and tutors on campuses. Some larger colleges now have a ratio of 800 students for each counselor, far above the recommended standard of 450-to-1, according to the proposal.
Funding would also be used to improve technology to help guide students in their academic choices, keep them on track and help them graduate on time, according to the proposal.
The colleges are asking for a $10 million increase in funding for programs that help students earn industry certificates targeted toward local workforce needs. It would bring funding to a total of $20 million for the certificate program.
And the colleges are asking to continue $60 million in performance funding that is distributed to the schools each year based on benchmarks such as graduation and retention rates and salaries earned by graduates.
The request totals $292 million for the 2019-2020 academic year, with $222 million in new funding.
College leaders say the increase is necessary, given the lack of state funding increases or higher tuition in recent years.
This year, the colleges are operating with a $2.02 billion budget, including $1.23 billion in state funding and $792 million in tuition, according to the state Department of Education.
But that is a decrease compared to the funding peak in 2016-2017, when state funding was $1.24 billion, and tuition generated $812 million.
Another way to look at it is per-student funding, which is $6,296 this year, down from $6,391 in 2016-2017, or a drop of $95 per student, according to the DOE data.
Ava Parker, president of Palm Beach State College and the head of the system’s Council of Presidents, said the budget request is similar to what the colleges asked for in the 2018 legislative session.
“Our needs continue to be the same, but they have been exacerbated because they have gone unattended for a while,” Parker said in an interview with The News Service of Florida.
“We are doing the best that we can to ensure a quality academic experience … but it’s very difficult for us to meet the needs of our students and their families and the needs of our communities when we don’t have the funding necessary to keep pace,” she said.
Parker said the funding crunch has forced colleges to put programs “on the backburner” or to leave waiting lists for programs unaddressed.
At her school, Parker said additional funds would allow her to start a long-anticipated program for physical-therapy students. “We have had to continuously say no to that because we haven’t had the resources to support it,” she said.
Another need is addressing a waiting list for students seeking to enroll in nursing programs, which are also a high-demand workforce need, she said.
One factor in the college-system budget is the counter-cyclical nature of the enrollment. When times are bad and jobs are scarce, more students enroll in the colleges, seeking to improve their job skills in a tight employment market.
When the job market improves, fewer students enroll or those who enroll may be part-time rather than full-time.
Florida’s colleges hit an enrollment peak of about 880,000 full- and part-time students in 2009 and 2010, when the impact of the last major recession was being felt. The current estimate is about 720,000 students in the system.
Measured as the number of students representing the equivalent of a full-time student, there are about 321,000 students, down from a peak of 375,292 “full-time equivalents” in the 2010-2011 academic year.
The decline in enrollment is one of the factors, in addition to the freeze on rates, in why tuition support has diminished. It is down more than $100 million since 2011-2012, according to the DOE data.
Florida also has lower tuition than most other states. The state’s $3,243 in annual tuition and fees ranked 39th among the 50 states and was $327 below the national average.