State college presidents on Friday expressed dismay that the 28-school system is being targeted for three-quarters of the cuts in the Florida Senate's initial plan to trim $131 million in higher-education spending.
“It is of great concern that the first thing out of the chute is a 74 percent reduction impacting the Florida college system and it is directed at programs that support our most at-risk student populations,” said Ed Meadows, president of Pensacola State College and the chairman of the Council of Presidents, which represents all the state colleges.
The suggested cuts include a $55 million reduction in remedial education, the suspension of $30 million in performance funding for the colleges and the suspension of $10 million in incentive funds aimed at producing more students with technical and industry certifications.
College presidents were also concerned that their system's cuts represented more than 74 percent of the $131 million total, while the state university reductions represented 10 percent and the private college cuts represented 5 percent.
But Meadows noted the budget process is still in its early stages.
“We hope to work with the Senate in the coming weeks to lessen the impact it could have on our ability to serve our students,” he told the other presidents Friday during their monthly meeting.
The budget cuts were revealed Wednesday by the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who heads the panel, said the proposal is the start of the Senate's budget deliberations.
“We just finished the first week and there is a lot to discuss and that's why I sent my initial proposed list to the committee,” Galvano said.
The Senate higher-education panel, like other budget subcommittees, has been methodically reviewing annual expenditures and had asked program advocates to file reports justifying the funding. Some of the advocates did not respond to the Senate.
“Many of the cuts are based on no response at all and others are based on very weak responses,” Galvano said.
Not all of the proposed cuts will be included in the Senate's final higher-education spending plan. But Galvano said program advocates “are going to have to make a new case for them or they (the cuts) will stand.”
The largest cut isn't a matter of program justification but instead is centered on a complex debate over the role of remedial, or developmental, education in the state college system.
Four years ago, the Legislature enacted a law that sought to limit the number of remedial courses being offered by the colleges, with the intent of moving more students into college-credit classes and eventually on to a degree.
The law has had an impact on the system, with the latest estimate showing a headcount of 14,000 students in state college remedial classes, down a third from 21,000 in the 2014-15 academic year.
With the 2013 law taking full effect, Galvano said, the expectation is that the funding for remedial classes should be dropping, reflecting the proposed $55 million cut.
But the college presidents said the proposed reduction represents about half of their remedial funding.
Edwin Massey, president of Indian River State College, said while the 2013 law has resulted in lower headcounts for remedial students, “the number of students coming to us that need developmental education has not declined.”
He said the student whose math skills may be lacking is enrolled in an algebra class but also given extra support with tutors, counseling and technical tracking.
“That really adds up to additional costs rather than less costs,” Massey said.
He also said many of the students needing remedial help are older students who have been out of school for a while, noting 41 percent of the remedial students on his campus are 25 or older.
The college presidents also raised questions about any cuts affecting workforce initiatives, including the suspension of a $10 million incentive program designed to increase the number of students earning technical and industry certifications.
Meadows said the incentive money is used to pay for things like covering the cost of an industry certification test for a student who is in line for a local job.
“It's going to have a negative impact on the availability of skilled workers in our local communities,” he said.
Jim Murdaugh, president of Tallahassee Community College, said he did not understand a $181,000 cut in a truck-driver training program launched at his school after local businesses said they were “desperately looking” for drivers.
“What's the rationale behind cutting a program that puts people to work?” he asked.
The remedial education courses, the industry certifications and other initiatives on the chopping block provide “opportunities to students who are not necessarily above average," Murdaugh said.
“We are their hope and we are their opportunity,” Murdaugh said. “The impact (of the cuts) is to slam the door on opportunity. I hope that is not the intention.”