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The Aristocats might still get in

Campus Class
Public Universities Abort Mission

Brooke Wolfe is an Atlantic High School honor student with an excellent 3.63 grade-point average. She applied to Florida Atlantic University —not exactly the Harvard of the Gold Coast—and four other schools. She was turned down by all five, forcing her into the third-rate anteroom of community-college education. What should never have happened to Wolfe is happening to thousands of students across the state. They have the grades, the will, the ability to make it in any state school. What they lack is a state university system enabled to give them the chance. It’s not for lack of space or capability, but of lawmakers literate in what’s best for Florida .

 

Since 1990, legislators have given up on quality public higher education as a universal right to those who qualify, starting with their financial commitment: In 1990, the state provided a $16,000 subsidy per public college student. Next year that may fall below $10,000 (after inflation). University and college enrollment is growing overall, but the figures are deceptive. Undergraduate enrollment is falling at both flagship universities ( Florida State and the University of Florida). Graduate enrollment is rising, because graduates bring research, money and prestige. Undergraduates just bring more Bright Futures scholarships the state has to fund, though it found a way out of that, too, in the past couple of years. “Supplemental” tuition increases—which will double students’ tuition by the time your middle-schooler is in college—won’t be covered by Bright Futures.

It’s not the universities’ fault. UF lost $70 million in state funding last year; $50 million this year. Jacking up tuition, which all state universities are doing to excess, can only make up so much difference. Between 2008 and 2012, UF is planning to cut undergraduate enrollment by 4,000. That’s on the heels of increasing enrollment barely 6 percent since 1990, half the state’s population-growth rate. It’s a similar story at Florida State, where enrollment is either static or falling, making it that much harder to get in, and explaining why the two schools’ freshmen averaged a freakish 4.2 GPA in high school and close to 1,300 on the SAT.

I’m all for giving the best and the brightest their chance at the flagships. But they’re not the end-all of higher education’s mission. Many students don’t blossom until college. That used to be understood. There was a time when you could tell your children that if they worked hard, got good grades (not freakishly high grades, either) and stayed out of trouble, they could get the college education they wanted, on their terms. There was plenty of room for late bloomers then. Now they never get their chance.

This isn’t golden-age romanticism. I’m proof. Until college, I was a mediocre student. As a high school senior, I had a barely respectable GPA of around 3.0. I had a combined SAT score of less than 1,000 (barely broke 400 in English). I found extracurricular activities a complete waste of time, so I had none. I applied at six universities, was accepted at four, including New York University, Fordham University and the University of Michigan—all fine schools. Not one would take me today with those credentials.

I find myself telling my ninth-grade daughter things I would have never heard from my parents—that short of near-perfect grades, she might not make it into the college of her choice. The expectations are unfair. The opportunities are a disgrace for being diminished by choice, not by necessity. Legislators are slaves to a zero-sum ideology that equates investment in education exclusively as more taxes, as if the cheapened opportunities and collective stupor of less investment in education isn’t the biggest collective tax of all. Then they pretend that opportunity is at an all-time high because higher ed doesn’t stop at UF and Florida State. The University of Central Florida is being touted as the next-best thing to the flagships. That’s just it: next-best thing. Thousands of students who can’t afford better schools already see UF and Florida State as settling for the next-best thing. (Keep in mind that at 31-to-1, Florida’s universities have the worst faculty-to-student ratio in the country.) Now they’re being forced to set their sights even lower.

It’s a class system. The academic aristocracy at Florida State and the University of Florida; the high-achievers in the state’s nine other universities (if they’re lucky, as Brooke found out); and everyone else—the majority—in what passes for college credit at the community level. It’s not just Florida, of course. Quality university education is becoming a privilege across the country, betraying the democratic mission of America’s great post-World War II higher-ed boom. And that’s without mentioning cost as academe’s fattest poll tax. Florida isn’t just fast-tracking the shift. It’s excelling at it.

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