Miami Herald Editorial: Worth every penny

Feb 23, 2010

The Miami Herald published this editorial on February 23, 2010.

In tough times, you bargain hunt for quality.

There’s no better bargain today in higher education than the Florida Resident Access Grant, or FRAG. It helps high school graduates attend the state’s nonprofit independent colleges and universities as part of a financial aid package.

It’s a bargain for the students — and for Florida taxpayers.

The state spends only 1.3 percent of its higher education budget on FRAG, about $2,500 per student a year. This grant, which began in 1979, has kept thousands of students in Florida instead of heading to out-of-state universities.

Unfortunately, the trend during the past few years of tight budgets has been for the Legislature to chop the grant, which served 32,000 students statewide last year. Now there are grumblings again from Tallahassee of more cuts to come.

What foolishness. It’ senseless to limit the number of students who need FRAG to enroll in these schools at a time when Florida’s public universities already have been forced to reduce enrollment.

If Florida is serious about diversifying its economy with more college graduates, it should be expanding FRAG, not squeezing it.

South Florida’s legislative delegation should be leading this charge for excellence and access. After all, South Florida is home to five such institutions that have produced strong results in graduation rates among the most diverse student bodies in the state. These are students attending accredited South Florida institutions like the University of Miami, Barry, St. Thomas, Nova and Florida Memorial.

It’s wise to prevent a brain drain. These students will graduate to become well-paid professionals, working and paying their fair share of taxes in Florida.

In all, independent colleges and universities handed out 17,532 bachelor degrees last year — 26 percent of all such degrees in the state. Forty-three percent of the students enrolled in those schools are minorities — higher than the percentage at public universities. And more than half of FRAG students are the first generation in their family to go to college.

The average graduation time at these independent colleges was 4.1 years — which is better than at public universities. too. They awarded one-third of Florida’s degrees in nursing and allied health — professions that help Florida catch up to its residents’ healthcare needs. Business, education, engineering, biology and computer sciences are a big part of their mission.

Florida’s public universities and community colleges surely warrant increased support, but they can’t enroll all the students who would qualify. That’s why Florida’s private accredited institutions are so important to the state’s well-being.

South Florida’s delegation has key players who care passionately about education and serve on education or appropriations panels. Among them are state Reps. David Rivera, Anitere Flores, Ellyn Bogdanoff, Dwight Bullard, Ronald Brise, Erik Fresen and Ron Saunders, as well as Sens. Rudy Garcia, Dan Gelber, Larcenia Bullard, Chris Smith and Ted Deutch.

They and all other South Florida legislators need to speak up with one voice to ensure this grant not only remains but grows. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s what’s best for Florida’s students, communities and economy.