ORLANDO -- The public college lobbyists and other officials who attended the Higher Education Government Relations Conference here last week heard a steady barrage of downbeat news: Climbing national unemployment figures, tumbling state revenues, and the scary prospect of the funding “cliff” when the economic stimulus money the federal government sent to states to protect education programs runs out.
So they could be forgiven if they, following in the footsteps of some of their peers, continue to believe that they need and deserve significantly more government support to combat what Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, called "the Great Recession, capital G, capital R," that is likely to linger in their states for the foreseeable future.
But the state and federal relations officials gathered here heard stern discouragement to the contrary from a friendly ally, whose basic theme to them, delivered bluntly, was: "Stop asking for money!"
Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said that business leaders in his state (like many of their counterparts elsewhere) have become big supporters of higher education because they recognize that colleges and universities represent the state's best path to a viable economic future.
The industries on which Florida has been dependent for the last 30 years, such as tourism and agriculture, cannot provide enough (high-paying) jobs to support a fast-growing state that is poised to become the nation's third most populous -- and now the 19th most expensive to live in, Wilson said. "The Florida we've known cannot compete over the next 30 years."
What the state needs in order to compete, Wilson said, is an education system that serves as a “talent supply chain” to produce enough educated and skilled workers to provide the workers needed by companies in Florida’s emerging industries -- life sciences, clean energy, and information technology, to name several of the “clusters” on which state leaders are focusing.
If Florida doesn’t produce them, Wilson said, the companies will leave to go where the workers are.
Business leaders fully recognize that schools, colleges and universities need resources to fill that role successfully, and the Chamber of Commerce and other groups have increasingly advocated for them, Wilson said. Last year corporate leaders backed university officials’ successful quest for more independence for individual institutions in setting tuition.
On the group's agenda going forward is better aligning state K-12 standards and college entrance requirements. Wilson noted that the state spends roughly $100 million a year on remedial education, which is not surprising, he notes, when Florida requires students entering its public colleges to know algebra, but doesn't require students to have passed algebra to leave high school.
Colleges can't just engage in their usual tack of asking business leaders to help them lobby legislators for more money, Wilson said; instead, they must show a propensity to "match up their supply of students with the demand for jobs.... I'm confident there will be more money available for degrees that the business community needs," but not necessarily more money for the status quo.
Some members of the audience at the government relations meeting questioned whether business leaders like Wilson really have higher education's best interests at heart -- questions raised by college leaders elsewhere and in recent newspaper editorials in Florida -- given their general opposition to tax increases that many in higher education see as essential to their future success.
Wilson called the taxes issue a "red herring," saying the disagreement was really about "higher education saying, 'We want more money,' and the business community saying, 'What for? You have not made the case.'"
What does "making the case" entail? Several other speakers offered suggestions at the meeting here, which was sponsored by the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, as well as by the state college association.
Officials from the University of Central Florida shared their story about how they collaborated with hospitals and supporters of biomedical research to persuade legislators of the need for a medical school designed to anchor a health sciences and biotechnology "city."
Reginald Robinson, president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents, described the effort by the Kansas public college system to define a five-part "public agenda" in which "alignment with the Kansas economy" is just one of the areas focused on meeting the state's needs (the others are alignment with K-12 education, student participation in college, student persistence in college, and students' learning outcomes).
The agenda is designed to focus not on any individual college's or university's status or success, but on how all the public institutions, together, meet the state's needs, Robinson said.
And ultimately, several other speakers said, colleges will have to make the case for more money -- if and when it becomes available -- by showing that they are good stewards of what they already have. That is likely to go beyond the kind of cost cutting in which they have traditionally engaged (and are doing now -- hiring freezes and the like) to more fundamental restructuring and review of how they operate.