The University of Central Florida (UCF) is the largest university in Florida and the second largest in the nation. Located in Orlando, FL we have over 58,000 students, ten regional campuses and over 200 degree programs to choose from. As you can imagine, our graduating classes are huge. In our fall commencement ceremonies we had 4,500 students graduate, and those numbers will only double at the coming spring commencements.
I'll be one of those UCF grads walking this spring. But unlike those who have walked before us, our futures are unclear. Tuition has increased dramatically since my freshmen year; and according to the New York Times, tuition across the entire nation has increased by 439 percent since 1982. Florida's public scholarship program called Bright Futures -- one that was designed to provide an incentive for stellar high school students to stay in Florida and attend Florida public universities -- has been steadily dwindling. What was once a scholarship that covered 100 percent of my tuition, Bright Futures now only covers 50 percent. These changes have forced many students to take out loans, and currently the average Florida student will graduate with approximately $21,000 in debt. To make the future even less bright, the interest rate of subsidized Stafford Loans are set to double this summer for undergraduates, and will no longer be made available to graduate students unless Congress intervenes.
The Florida legislature and our Governor pride themselves on the importance of Florida's educational system, yet they continuously find ways to sabotage it. It's ironic but true. Just recently Governor Rick Scott wrote an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel praising himself and the Florida legislature in their efforts to support public schools. He stated that:
Making ends meet in the face of a $1.2 billion budget shortfall this year, on top of an even larger, $3.7 billion shortfall from last year was not an easy task, while still finding a way to pour more than a billion additional dollars into our schools.
Sure, he put a $1 billion back into K-12 education, but we can't forget that he cut $1.3 billion last year. As David DiSalvo of Forbes writes, "That's like burning down someone's house, replacing it with the wooden frame of a house and calling it progress."
The case for Florida's public university system is no better. The Florida legislature proposed $300 million in budget cuts for state universities and the Governor approved, signing the budget into law at an elementary school last week. Universities from the panhandle down to Miami are trying to find ways to make ends meet, but as expected, it's we the students who are carrying the burden of these budget cuts. Not only will our tuition increase again this year, but programs that we need are also being eliminated. Take into consideration our state's flagship university, the University of Florida (UF). UF has just recently announced that due to budget cuts, they will be dropping their computer science department. This decision has led to student-wide protests and expressed concerns from distinguished computer scientists. Carl de Boor, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and winner of the 2003 National Medal of Science, asked the UF president quite bluntly, "What were you thinking?"
That's a question that I ask our Governor every day -- he not only approved the $300 million budget cut to public universities but has also agreed to create a 12th university. That's right: Rick Scott signed into law the establishment of a brand new university near Tampa called Florida Polytechnic University. As you may know, Tampa is already home to the University of South Florida (USF), another large state university that will also be suffering budget cuts this year.
Does it make sense to build a new state university when so many are already experiencing short falls? No, not really. But as expected, the fruition of Florida Polytechnic University was not based on logic or sensibility. It was instead a political move by our Governor to please Republican chairman of the Budget Committee, State Senator JD Alexander. Alexander, who will not be running for reelection due to term limits, demanded that USF's Lakeland campus -- which is in his district -- be made into an independent state university. The state budget was in limbo over this issue, and when USF opposed Alexander's plan, they suddenly faced a 58 percent reduction to their budget. It was a high price to pay for standing against the chairman of the Budget Committee; and in the end Alexander got his new university.
The actions of both our state legislature and Governor have left the class of 2012 scarred. Continuous budget cuts, the never ending decrease of Bright Futures and the rising tuition have left this UCF grad to be somewhat bitter. However, my tale is still one of optimism. After all, 2012 is an election year. And if other grads and students are as frustrated as I am, they'll be voting this year, and they'll be voting in favor of education.