Florida Legislature advances bill to merge two small public colleges

UPDATE: Feb. 26, 2020: A bill in Florida’s Legislature to fold two smaller state colleges into larger institutions advanced out of the House appropriations committee on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times reported, though with a key change. The new version would merge the two smaller schools into one existing university, not two.

However, the controversial proposal still doesn’t have a companion bill in the Senate, which is needed for it to pass. 

Dive Brief: 

  • The Florida Legislature is weighing a proposal to merge two of the state’s smaller colleges one of its larger universities.
  • The amended bill would fold the New College of Florida and Florida Polytechnic University into the University of Florida. The smaller institutions would also transfer their assets to the university. An earlier version of the bill brought New College into Florida State University instead.
  • The proposal makes Florida the latest state to consider merging its public institutions as a way to address enrollment declines and to help lower higher ed spending.

Dive Insight: 

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Randy Fine, has argued that the plan could help reduce how much the state spends on higher education by targeting two public institutions in the State University System of Florida.

The legislation would require the schools to submit a merger application to their accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. 

But several of the state’s lawmakers have joined the two smaller institutions in opposing the proposal, arguing the change is unnecessary and that the colleges should remain independent.

The New College of Florida spun off from the University of South Florida in 2001 as an independent institution and an honors college. 

However, enrollment at the school — which mostly focuses on liberal arts education — has slid to around 700 students, even though the state awarded it extra funding in 2017 to grow its student body, according to local media reports

In an email to the campus community this month, New College President Donal O’Shea detailed his opposition to the plan, writing that it had caught him off guard. “One of the system’s hallmarks is its diversity of institutions,” he continued. “New College plays an important and unique role in this respect and, in fact, in the national higher education landscape.” 

Meanwhile, enrollment at Florida Polytechnic University is around 1,300 students, most of whom are undergraduates, since it opened as an independent institution in 2014. It was previously a branch campus of the University of South Florida.

“In its young life, Florida Poly has been doing the job it was created for,” the university said in a statement emailed to Education Dive earlier this month. “Our projections show enrollment growth, and applications have nearly doubled.” 

A Florida Poly spokesperson told Education Dive that the college was not consulted on the proposed bill. 

This isn’t the first time Florida has moved to consolidate colleges. In 2018, state lawmakers removed the independent accreditation of two University of South Florida campuses and reverted them back to satellites of the system’s flagship, the Tallahassee Democrat reported

Other states have initiated similar mergers, especially among regional universities, as a way to stave off enrollment declines, reduce administrative costs and invest the savings into student services, they say. 

The University System of Georgia has consolidated nine colleges in the past decade in an attempt to improve student outcomes. And five community colleges in Minnesota recently announced that they plan to merge in the next two years in response to declining enrollment statewide. 

Not all merger proposals have been successful. Last year, the University of Alaska rejected a move to combine its three flagship institutions as a way to help the system absorb a steep cut in state support.

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