The University of Florida campus (Pic by Random McRandomhead, via Flickr)

University of Florida President Bernard Machen spoke to the state House Education Committee this morning, echoing many of the concerns previously expressed by Gov. Rick Scott about higher ed and offering other proposals he says could make the state’s university system more effective.

Scott has come under fire for his emphasis on the importance of STEM-degrees versus liberal arts degrees. Machen took it a step further this morning — arguing that STEM degrees should cost more than other degrees, an idea he said wouldn’t affect enrollment.

Machen spoke repeatedly about the need to emphasize the length of time students should be enrolled in college, saying that graduating in four years is “not the norm today.” One problem, according to Machen, may be the specifics of Florida’s Bright Futures program, a scholarship created by the state Legislature that rewards students for academic achievement during high school.

When asked whether he sees a correlation between the Bright Futures scholarship and the length of time it takes students to graduate, Machen said yes.

“[Bright Futures is] a very generous program,” he said, but added that the fact that students gets 120 credit hours to use however they see fit, “with no guidance as to what they should be taking,” can be problematic.

“A student could say, ‘We’re going to have a good football team next year, and I want to come back and see it next fall,’ so they stay an extra year,” said Machen.

Because Bright Futures credits cannot be used for classes taken during the summer, Machen argued, many students are left in a quandary. “We have a bunch of students who come to Ganseville and the real estate industry makes them sign a 12-month lease … but they don’t have the money for tuition in the summer … so do they pay [for summer classes] themselves or just not enroll in the summer?”

Machen went on to ask the legislators on the committee to consider a move to allow Bright Futures to pay for summer classes, saying it would “increase the efficiency” of getting students through college.

According to committee member Rep. Jim Waldman (a proponent of for-profit college education), students paying for their own colleges might be more likely to graduate than those recieving scholarship funds. “One of the things I’ve found [is that] there is a correlation between the investment the student made and the graduation rate,” he said. “In Bright Futures, and I’m not advocating getting rid of it, they’re not as invested in it.”

Another hot topic brought up during this morning’s meeting was the need for (and cost of) university research. Scott has said that he would like to use Texas’ higher ed proposals as a template for future changes in Florida. Many of Texas’ proposals are based on a policy paper known as the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” created by Texas businessman Jeff Sandefer. Sandefer has been critical of the university tenure system, which he says places more emphasis on research than on classroom time.

According to Machen, research can be a big payoff for the university in which it is conducted — but the payoff is rare. “Research is very expensive, especially if you’re doing it in the sciences,” said Machen. “If I was [a university] just starting out … I wouldn’t do it. I’d try to become more of a university that focuses on teaching rather than research.”

Machen, who said only those schools with an emphasis on both research and graduate education can “pull it off,” brought up one example from UF in which research has indeed paid off.

“Gatorade has brought hundreds of millions of dollars back to the university … but there aren’t a lot of ‘Gatorades’ out there,” he said. “You can’t think about research as a moneymaker. My advice to other universities moving in that direction is to just be careful.”

In terms of how to properly measure the quality of Florida universities, Machen said more emphasis should be placed on the test-taking skills of students. “It doesn’t do any good to graduate from law school if you can’t pass the bar,” he said. “I think the pass rate is another measure of quality we should  be held accountable for.”

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