Florida’s Higher Education Diversity Imperative

As a state with a booming Hispanic and steadily growing African-American population, the issues of access and diversity in higher education are almost always front and center in Florida.

“It’s the thing that we care about the most,” remarks Michael Brawer, CEO of the Florida Association of Community Colleges.

“And for that reason, whenever we come up short with dollars or are unable to offset a dollar of reduction with a modicum of a tuition fee increase, we get worried,” says Brawer.

The fourth largest state in the Union and on target — according to most demographers — for edging out New York for the number-three slot by the end of the decade, Florida has an 18 percent Hispanic population that is framed by Cuban Americans in the southern population-rich Gold Coast counties of the state, and both Puerto Rican-American and Mexican-American enclaves primarily in both southern and south-central Florida. African-Americans have seen their share of the state’s population increase by nearly 2 percent since the 1990s, to 16.3 percent, and are dispersed throughout Florida with some of their largest numbers in the northern counties hugging the Alabama and Georgia border.

According to the Florida College Systems’ most recent annual report, 41 percent of the state’s 887,000 students are non-White, while 59 percent are women. Those numbers are expected to grow in the next decade, playing an increasingly important role in what University of South Florida Provost Ralph Wilcox calls “the 21st century global economy.”

For that reason, Florida educators worry that any decrease in the state’s education budget — last year funding dropped by more than $4 billion — will inevitably have a negative impact on access and diversity.

In response, Florida State University President Eric Barron has suggested that Florida schools should be allowed to increase tuitions for those pursuing STEM degrees. Barron adds that, because it costs more for schools to provide STEM training in terms of attracting a salary-competitive faculty and buying high-tech equipment, they should have the freedom to charge a higher tuition for those programs.

“As it is, students pursuing liberal arts are essentially subsidizing the STEM programs,” Barron adds.

Noting that at least 60 percent of the students enrolled in Florida’s two-year schools are minorities, Brawer remarks: “We know that we are having an overwhelming amount of success in that domain.”

But if state funding remains static or decreases, warns Brawer, “You have to wonder what impact that will have on these very students succeeding in postsecondary education.”

“Maintaining access remains our top priority,” adds Brawer, “even more important, if you can believe it, than whether or not we should be emphasizing STEM or liberal arts.”