State leaders look to increase graduate degrees

Florida capitol building
Florida capitol building

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Although Florida's production of graduate degrees has stalled in the past few years, Senate President Joe Negron said Monday he wants to enhance the state's graduate and professional schools as part of a plan to improve the quality of the state's higher-education system.

Negron, R-Stuart, who wants to boost university system funding by $1 billion over the next two years, said one of the quickest ways to elevate the system is to enhance "our graduate programs, particularly law, business and medicine."

"I would expect that we want to set aside some money specifically designed to make those schools even more prominent than they already are," Negron said. "And the good news is we've got a lot of great law schools, medical schools and business schools in Florida."

As Negron made his remarks, Marshall Criser III, chancellor of Florida's state university system, told the Senate Education Committee that the production of master's degrees, research doctorates and professional degrees has been "flat" across the 12 state universities.

Graduate degrees rose from 22,136 degrees in the 2012-13 academic year to 22,654 degrees in 2014-15, an increase of less than 2.5 percent, according to data from the university system's Board of Governors. Medical degrees rose by 39 percent to 581 degrees while law degrees dropped 13 percent to 864 in that time frame.

Florida's graduate degree production was third in the nation in 2014, but less than half of the 45,529 degrees in Texas and well behind California's 34,866 degrees.

In the longer term, Florida's graduate programs have grown based on enrollment. Over the last decade, students enrolled in research doctoral programs or professional programs were up by 41 percent, while master's degree programs were up by 21 percent.

"Some of that may have been the function of the recession, when some people decided to stay in (school) and go for that next degree," Criser said. "We've seen a fairly flat level of graduate degree production in the last three years."

Criser said his staff was "diving deeper" to understand those trends.

However, Criser said a positive trend among graduate students was evident with the Board of Governor's emphasis on programs of "strategic emphasis," including degrees linked to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as well as health-care degrees and education degrees.

In fact, 60 percent of the graduate degrees awarded in 2014-15 were in the emphasized programs, including 5,195 STEM degrees and 4,816 in health fields.

"These are the areas where we believe Florida needs more graduates to fill the workforce demands that we have," Criser said.

He said the growth in those degrees has been "significant" as universities have emphasized that message and students have responded.

"They have in turn gotten the bug to pursue some of these things," he said.

Over the last decade, health-care graduate and professional degrees are up 87 percent, business management and marketing is up 41 percent and engineering is up 48 percent, according to Criser's report.

In another response aimed at boosting graduate degrees, Criser's report said major research universities in Florida are "shifting the mix," keeping undergraduate enrollment stable but growing their graduate enrollments.

In his annual "state of the university" address last week, Florida State University President John Thrasher said his school was making a pitch for increased funding to the Legislature to bring in more faculty and improve graduate programs.

"In the past, we have focused heavily on undergraduate student success and those investments have really paid off for us," Thrasher said. "We will always put our undergrads at the center of our academic mission, but in the coming years, you will see an increasing focus on our graduate students and postdocs."

As part of FSU's goal to become a "top 25" public university, Thrasher said the school needs to increase its graduate enrollment, which in 2015 was about 19 percent of its 41,473 students.

"We are working on a number of recruiting strategies to attract more high-caliber graduate students and boost graduate enrollment and we're asking the Legislature for funds that will allow us to increase stipends," Thrasher said.

He said graduate program improvements will be aimed at several key areas, including brain research, materials science and coastal and marine research.