Students at Florida’s public colleges and universities are taking too long to graduate, and state lawmakers have a fix for that — The Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act of 2017.
The bill (SB 2) would change state performance standards and use funding to penalize public colleges and universities whose students take longer than the traditional time frame — typically two or four years depending on the school and degree — to complete their academic courses and graduate.
The bill tries to address a problem many colleges and universities across the country continue to face. In Florida, the so-called “on-time” completion rates in our public colleges and universities aren’t good, and too many students who start their post-secondary education drop out and fail to finish.
Don’t get me wrong. There are several good provisions in the bill, and I’m all for improvements to on-time graduation. In an ideal world, two and four years should be sufficient to obtain an associate’s and undergraduate degree respectively. Unfortunately, today’s students don’t live in an ideal world.
Today’s college student is older than in previous generations. They also juggle other responsibilities, like jobs and family obligations. And the cost of a college education continues to be a challenge as household income remains a key factor in determining if a young person stays enrolled and graduates.
A 2014 report by the College Board clearly shows that a majority of full-time students attending four-year institutions don’t graduate on time. The study, which used federal data collected between 2009 and 2012, found on-time graduate rates from 60 percent at the University of Florida to 12 percent at Florida A&M University.
On-time graduation rates weren’t much better among Florida’s state colleges. On average, about 35 percent of the students in state colleges finish their programs on time. While the Florida average exceeds the national average, the statistic isn’t much of a consolation prize for the nation’s third largest state.
The numbers aren’t good, but more understandable when you add in the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants, the federal government’s financial assistance for students in need. For example, Florida A&M and Florida International University have low “on-time“ completion rates but primarily serve minority students who rely on federal Pell Grants and other forms of financial assistance. A similar co-relation between graduation rates and financial aid students exist on other Florida campuses.
Unfortunately, grants — particularly scholarships based on financial need — haven’t kept pace with demand. Neither have cumbersome class scheduling that forces students to delay completing their academic requirements.
Imposing an arbitrary graduation performance standard won’t help our students or the colleges and universities they attend. What’s needed is greater flexibility in course scheduling, more “need-based” financial aid and new incentives to help our institutions of higher learning help their students.
PERRY THURSTON, FORT LAUDERDALE
Editor’s note: Perry Thurston represents District 33 in the Florida Senate, and is chairman of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators.