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Sunshine State News: Coming Together on Higher Education

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Elections are over and now elected officials will again focus on some of the critical policy issues facing our state and nation.

Much of the U.S. economic recovery conversation has focused specifically on the success of our current student generation and the need to provide proper tools for these students to flourish. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities held its annual leadership meeting in Washington, D.C., this month to brainstorm on potential federal policy changes and how they might impact higher education and, most importantly, the consumer. Of immediate concern is the so-called “fiscal cliff” and the damages that might be done to taxpayers if several tax issues related to higher education are not continued.

Among the issues rising in importance are: — Possible expirations of the Charitable IRA rollover, American Opportunity Tax Credit and Coverdell College Savings Accounts.

— Potential elimination of the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Perkins loan programs that assist students from lower income families.

— Increased regulation at the federal level for schools of education.

— Tying value-added testing to both the evaluation of teachers and to the institutions from where they graduated.

— Increased role of the federal government in how educational programs are authorized, accredited and implemented.

— Definition of credit hours and assignment of course credits.

While Congress and legislatures across the country bemoan the costs of regulation on business and industry, they increasingly think adding complex regulations to higher education will have only positive impacts. While performance and accountability are certainly part of the conversation, it is always important to ensure purpose and value will be added when considering new regulations and requirements. Education is the responsibility of the states, and overbearing federal regulations are likely to do more harm than good in improving access and opportunity.

It is important that policy makers not lose sight of the needs of students and families, as well as the costs of implementation, when creating new policies. How do we overcome the challenges facing our higher education systems? Can we keep college costs down while increasing quality? How will we work together to address student-loan debt and the dismal job market for recent graduates?

Quality does matter and if we sacrifice excellence by offering a substandard education, the rest of the world will continue to improve while our systems grow stagnant. The U.S. higher education system has long been a magnet for students across the globe, but recently this tide has shifted and students are seeking other countries’ systems first. Science and math, while rising in importance, cannot be as effectively offered in a classroom of 250 to 300 students. The ability to offer small class sizes and laboratories is important to prospective students.

In our state, the 31 Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida (ICUF) have expanded their reach through entrepreneurial initiatives that have created more than 300 online degree programs. These institutions have partnered with local colleges to offer baccalaureate degree completion programs, even though the number of these programs has decreased as state colleges have begun to offer their own bachelor’s programs through state-supported initiatives. Florida has seen an increase in the number of students graduating from Florida independent colleges and universities. Our desire is to increase access and opportunity across the state. In order to meet the unique needs of Florida’s work force, we must find ways to keep our home-grown talent here to fill high-tech jobs.

As we look toward a new year filled with dynamic goals and priorities, we must remember that education should not be a partisan issue. It is an issue that can have a positive impact on everyone. It should become a priority policy area for Florida so we can show the nation how best to link our talented students with our growing economy; how one state can innovate without burdensome efforts to regulate; and how best to bring together business, industry and education for the benefit of all Floridians.

Dr. Ed H. Moore is president and CEO, Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.

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