While Florida has one of the best state college systems in the country, a new report from the LeRoy Collins Institute says the colleges can do better, particularly in helping low-income and minority students pay for their educations and complete degrees.
Among the findings from the non-partisan statewide policy organization, which is housed at Florida State University:
- While 60 percent of the students entering Florida's 28 state colleges are low-income or academically disadvantaged, they graduate at lower rates than other students.
- Many students don't qualify for merit-based scholarships, like Bright Futures, underscoring the importance of more need-based aid.
- State support for the colleges is roughly $1,000 below the national average for per-student funding.
- Colleges that evolved from institutions focusing almost exclusively on local priorities now find themselves "caught in the middle between local and statewide priorities." State colleges were formerly known as community colleges, with a handful still retaining community college names.
- There are “mixed results” in the analysis of whether the college graduates are meeting the workforce needs of the state.
"The Florida college system is an essential part of Florida's higher education landscape and has been doing an exemplary job," said Carol Weissert, director of the Collins Institute and an FSU political scientist. "However, there are challenges for the (system) that should be acknowledged."
One of the positives for the Florida colleges, which serve more than 800,000 students and offer programs ranging from vocational preparation to bachelor's degrees, is that Florida has one of the highest three-year graduation rates in the country.
Florida was ranked third in the nation with a 48 percent three-year graduation rate, compared to a 29 percent national rate, based on 2010 data, the report showed.
The report also notes state college enrollment is growing and has become more diverse over time, providing access for a large number of low-income students. It has led to greater degree production, helping Florida raise the percentage of its residents who have college degrees, although the state lags the national average.
But the report also notes not all students "appear to be making gains in terms of both enrollment and completion at equal rates."
"For instance, black students show a much slower increase in completion rates than is the case for enrollment rates," the report said. "Put differently, it appears as though more black students may be entering the (system), but are not completing at the same rates as other race/ethnicities."
Another concern raised by the report is that Florida's emphasis on merit-based scholarships might be hurting state college students. On average, Florida devotes 25 percent of its higher-education grants to need-based programs, compared to a national average of 48 percent, the report said.
The impact is reflected in the merit-based Bright Futures awards, where only 4.4 percent of the 42,000 scholarships in the highest category, known as "academic scholars," go to state college students.
The report notes some of the deficit in need-based aid can be made up from federal programs, like Pell grants, while arguing there are still unmet needs.
"Given the percentage of children living in low-income households in Florida, which far exceeds the national average, the state must be particularly cognizant how its educational policies affect these populations," the report said.
In response to the report, the state Board of Education, which oversees the 28 colleges, recently changed its formula for determining performance-based funding to include a measurement that recognize colleges serving large numbers of low-income students.