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Five Questions for the Chancellor of Florida’s 12 State Universities

Florida’s 12 public universities continue to grow in national prominence, breadth of degree offerings, and enrollment. Chancellor Marshall Criser III, a graduate of the University of Florida whose father served as UF president, is focused on making sure universities are prepared for the increased demands of a global economy. Marshall CrizerHe is also committed to ensuring there are measures in place to make a university education financially feasible for families.

1. Amid national concerns over student loan debt, how is Florida’s State University System addressing students’ fears about debt load and the impact on post-graduation income?

Alleviating student debt continues to be a big priority for Governor Rick Scott, the Florida Legislature and our Board. One recent action to address that issue was the Governor’s “Ready, Set, Work Challenge,” in which the Governor asked universities to get 100 percent of their graduates full-time employment within a year, unless they are continuing on with graduate studies. Florida Gulf Coast University has responded to the challenge by proposing a program to rebate the first year of tuition to students who graduate on time and find a job in Florida within six months of graduation. The Board of Governors also helps minimize student expenses through performance funding, which provides a financial incentive for universities to graduate students quickly and ensure they have the skillsets and connections to launch prosperous careers. Performance funding has been so successful, in fact, that Florida’s graduation rate, for the second year in a row, is best in the country among the 10 largest states.

2. The cost of a public university education in Florida is more affordable than in many states, but can still seem out of reach for many families. What advice would you give to families who want to give a child the best options for a post-secondary degree?

Due to the changes enacted by Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature in 2014, the Florida Prepaid Program is significantly more affordable. This is an important component to Florida’s higher education landscape, creating an environment in which students often can attend a college or university and achieve a degree with little or no debt. For families in low-income brackets, Pell Grants can be a crucial resource for students. One excellent cost-saving option for families in any income bracket is for students to attend one of Florida’s 28 public colleges and then transfer to a university. Our universities have partnerships with local community colleges that can facilitate a smooth transition between institutions, and the Board of Governors is looking at how we can make that smoother still. Additionally, advancements in online education can provide students with the schedule flexibility to have a job while pursuing their degrees.

3. What is the first thing you would tell a student walking into a university classroom for the first time?

Our state universities are doing a better job than ever before about helping students understand their future job prospects within each field of study.

But it’s still up to the students to absorb the information and act on what they’ve learned. My advice for students is to be engaged in that discussion and to make sure, whatever the major or field of study, to be making an informed decision.

4. The governor is focused on bringing new businesses and jobs to Florida. What is the State University System doing to respond with qualified candidates?

Florida is extremely proactive in this area. In fact, at the baccalaureate level, degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (known as STEM fields) have risen 30 percent in the past five years, far outpacing the 9 percent growth in non-STEM disciplines. Similarly, graduate STEM degrees grew 17 percent compared to the 3 percent of non-STEM graduate degrees. We still have work to do with regard to better aligning degrees with the workforce, but our progress is due to a number of strategic decisions. Most critical is performance funding, which incentivizes universities to grow their degrees in high-wage, high-demand areas. In response, universities have redoubled their focus on educating students early in their academic careers about the job opportunities associated with their majors, ramping up mentorship and internship programs, and providing more advanced job-training.  Furthermore, the Board in 2013 published a study, in collaboration with university and workforce stakeholders – that compared the degrees we’re producing in Florida with the expected jobs in the state workforce. In response, the Governor and Legislature in 2014 awarded $15 million for an initiative, known as the TEAm Grant program, which offers competitively-awarded funding so that universities and colleges can grow programs in high-demand areas. Those programs are performing extremely well and enrolling and graduating many more students than initially projected.

5. In higher education, there is a lot of discussion comparing a degree earned from a brick and mortar institution versus online classes and distance learning. How is the SUS addressing online and distance learning?

The State University System is continuously expanding its options with regard to online education, with UF Online offering one of the country’s first fully online undergraduate degrees and Complete Florida giving former students the opportunity to enroll online to finish a degree they may have started. Perhaps most remarkable and unique to the State University System of Florida is our Strategic Plan for Online Education, which sets guidelines and goals for the entire System and marks what is likely the first time in the country that an entire State University System has implemented a coordinated approach to distance learning. One of the plan’s critical components is that online courses will have the same rigor and context as traditional courses. As a result, these students are fully prepared to succeed in finding a job or continuing their education.

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