How SB2 Undermines Education and Opportunity
Guest post by Amy Bolick
Since 2014, Florida universities have sharply turned toward more corporate approaches to higher education. In particular, funding has been tied to student earnings in the years immediately following their graduation. This sends the message that higher education is primarily about training white-collar workers and not about research, education, or opportunity. In 2017, Governor Rick Scott has doubled down on this message by pushing changes that will drain funding from arts and humanities programs, cut short educational opportunities for students, and disadvantage underprivileged students.
Scott framed these changes as an effort to make higher education in the state of Florida more affordable and to shorten the average time-to-degree (TTD) for Florida undergraduates. His plan, dubbed “Finish in Four, Save More,” would freeze tuition and fees at Florida state universities, expand the Bright Futures scholarship, and reduce taxes on college textbooks. At face value, these are all excellent goals. The devil, however, is in the details. How will universities be transformed in order to achieve these goals?
Senate Bill 2 (SB2), dubbed the “Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act,” would implement much of Governor Scott’s plan by modifying state university performance accountability metrics and standards to promote on-time student graduation in four years, as opposed to the state average of six. SB2 aims to achieve these goals by incentivizing state colleges and universities to modify academic curriculum in order to accelerate graduation rates and to shift funding from the humanities and other liberal arts degree programs in favor of degree programs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (“STEM”) disciplines. The effect of SB2 also places pressure on college students from underprivileged backgrounds to accelerate their learning at a pace they may not be prepared to handle in order to meet a 4-year graduation timeline.
Those who value higher education for its role in producing well-rounded, civically-minded graduates with strong critical thinking and analytical skills are right to be alarmed by SB2. Governor Scott throughout his term in office has approved funding schemes for state colleges and universities that would divert money away from potentially less lucrative fields in the humanities to STEM departments that produce top earners. While SB2 does not directly call for this kind of redistribution of funds, understanding Florida’s funding scheme for universities reveals how the law could contribute to such efforts.
In 2014, the Board of Governors for Florida state universities adopted a program called “performance-based funding.” This program ties a certain amount of funding that public institutions receive to metrics determined by the Board of Governors. There are currently twelve metrics, including average TTD and the average starting salaries of students one year removed from graduation and five years removed from graduation.
In the two years since its adoption, performance-based funding has received some harsh criticism—primarily that it simply does not work. One problem is that the metrics assign thresholds for colleges and universities to meet, but they do not provide guidelines on how these metrics should be met. For example, one way of ensuring a shorter average TTD is to make standards for admission more stringent, which could shut out students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may otherwise show an aptitude for rigorous degree programs but need more time to acclimate to the college learning environment and catch up with their peers.
Importantly, performance-based metrics do not include any standards for academic rigor, meaning that universities could speed up graduation rates by reducing the number of general education requirements in their degree programs. As general education courses shrink, departments devoting substantial resources to survey courses would be devastated.
Where SB2 Takes Us
SB2 doubles-down on performance-based funding, and makes some of its standards even more restrictive despite a lack of evidence of their effectiveness. For example, SB2 requires schools to have an average TTD of 4 years, as opposed to the current 6 years. It also requires that reports of alumni earnings be based on thresholds that account for the added benefit of a bachelor’s degree.
Again, SB2 does not provide guidelines for academic rigor, and its system of tying funding to metrics will encourage schools to cut funding for programs that do not contribute to meeting the chosen metrics. This may also discourage schools from admitting students to degree programs such as English, History, and Philosophy where students must work longer before achieving higher earnings—in contrast STEM fields, where salaries are often high right out of college.
SB2 is likely expand the gap between students from underprivileged backgrounds and their peers. While many students from more privileged backgrounds may graduate high school with their first two years of college completed via dual enrollment, students from underprivileged backgrounds rarely enter a college environment with such advantages. If they do make it to college, they will now be pressured to take heavy course loads, choose a major quickly, and graduate in the a short time—with no room for error. SB2 further makes no provisions for students who will take longer to graduate because they must work to put themselves through school. For this reason, universities may choose to admit fewer lower-income students who would need to work while enrolled and therefore will take longer to finish their degrees.
The Corporatization of the American University
SB2 represents a growing trend in higher education policy that views state colleges and universities as corporations, and taxpayers as their shareholders. Under this view, it is the university’s responsibility to provide taxpayers with a healthy return on investment by quickly graduating students with high earning potential and if graduates are not landing high-paying jobs immediately out of school, then taxpayers are wasting their money. While it is important that we not squander taxpayer funds with wasteful programs that drain our state of its resources, our lawmakers must recognize that what has allowed the United States to become a world leader in innovation and entrepreneurship has been our ability to foster critical thinking and creativity across a variety of disciplines, both technical and non-technical. A zero-sum approach of promoting the STEM disciplines at the expense of the humanities will ultimately result in a less educated and less capable workforce, unable to compete in a high globalized marketplace. These kinds of short-sighted “return on investment” measures will ultimately hurt more than help.