Florida Rep. Randy Fine

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay

The House Education Committee on Wednesday advanced a controversial proposal to merge the two newest and smallest of Florida’s 12 public universities into its two oldest and largest universities.

PCB EDC 20-03, a committee bill championed by House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, would fold Florida Polytechnic University into the University of Florida (UF), and the New College of Florida (NCF) into Florida State University (FSU) in July.

Fine said the motivation for the mergers is simple: “Efficiencies.”

Even with loans and private funds, “state taxpayers actually pay on average $28,200 per degree” for every Florida university graduate, he said.

The state’s cost per degree is $180,958 at Florida Poly, compared with $31,598 at UF, while its administrative costs are estimated to consume 23 percent of its budget, compared with UF’s estimate of 9.8 percent, Fine said.

The state cost per degree is $197,681 at NCF compared with $36,857 at FSU. Administrative costs are estimated to be 27 percent of its budget, compared with FSU’s 10 percent.

“We have an obligation as legislators to provide the best education to students at the lowest cost,” Fine said, noting smaller schools with fewer students are going to cost more, but “these schools spend a quarter of their revenues in administrative costs.”

NCF, established in Sarasota County as a state university in 2001, has failed to reach an enrollment goal of 1,200 students that the Legislature gave it $10 million to achieve, he said, noting it has 837 students.

Asked why Florida Poly should not be merged into the nearby University of Central Florida (UCF) and NCF into nearby University of South Florida, Fine said that is “not an unreasonable perspective" and is a “discussion worth happening.” 

However, he said, merging Florida Poly with UF makes sense because UF is among the nation’s “highest-ranking engineering schools” and, thus, “a good fit.”

The only real objections to the mergers is “emotional attachment,” he said.

Not so, a cadre of speakers planned to say Wednesday – especially in defense of Florida Poly – but could not as time expired and the hearing adjourned. They’ll have opportunities to make their points in committee hearings.

Florida Poly President Dr. Randy Avent, in abbreviated remarks, said the school produces STEM graduates at 42 percent the average cost of STEM degrees elsewhere, and the school’s administrative costs have declined by $1.49 million since becoming an independent university.

When lawmakers created Florida Poly in 2012, they christened it with a unique mission: develop cutting-edge curriculum to draw science, technology, math and engineering students to drive high-tech, high-skill economic development statewide.

The mission came with existential obstacles, including mandates to meet enrollment and accreditation milestones by do-or-die deadlines or be dissolved. 

The “start-up university” opened in 2014 with 554 students. It needed an enrollment of 1,300 by December 2017 or be dissolved. It met those goals and now has an enrollment of more than 1,340 on its 170-acre campus between Orlando and Lakeland.

Florida Poly has become a key node in the state’s I-4 high-tech corridor linking the Space Coast to Tampa Bay. It hosts the Innovation, Science & Technology (IST) Center; Florida Industrial & Phosphate Research Institute; Advanced Mobility Research Institute; SunTrax, a 475-acre autonomous vehicle testing center; and, next year, its Applied Research Center opens. 

As the Senate adjourned from its budget session Wednesday afternoon, Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the mergers are “worthy of discussion.” 

Asked whether introducing the bill at the session’s mid-point makes it a “take-it-or-leave-it issue,” Galvano said, “There have been (merger) discussions for quite a while. They are healthy from time-to-time.”