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Florida state capitol in Tallahassee

A bill to merge two Florida colleges with the University of Florida was scrapped before reaching the floor last week as the state Legislature wrapped up its session Friday. The bill was sprung on colleges without warning and squashed by the outgoing Florida Senate president, but legislators and college leadership are preparing for the bill to resurface in a later session.

In its final form, the bill, sponsored by Republican Representative Randy Fine, would have merged Florida Polytechnic University and New College of Florida into the University of Florida. An earlier version of the proposal would have combined Florida Polytechnic with Florida State University and New College with the University of Florida, but it was amended in committee.

The proposal would have addressed some lawmakers’ concerns that the cost per degree at Florida Polytechnic and New College was significantly higher than at the University of Florida, driving up public higher education costs for the state.

“Spending is not caring. Spending more efficiently is,” Fine said during a House Appropriations Committee meeting last month.

Donal O’Shea, president of New College, was not made aware of the bill before it was filed. Neither were the presidents of Florida Polytechnic or the University of Florida.

“I never sleep well when the Legislature is in session,” O’Shea said. “I was at lunch, got back and the bill was posted at 4 p.m.”

The House Appropriations and Education committees advanced the bill, House Bill 7087, with amendments before it was indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration on Saturday, March 14.

House Speaker José Oliva, a Republican, has said the decision to abandon the bill was “a shame, but it is the process.” He expects the bill to come up again next session.

Republican Senate President Bill Galvano -- a supporter of New College, which sits in his district -- declined to bring a Senate companion bill to the floor, a fatal blow for the proposal. Galvano’s two-year term as Senate president will end this year. With Galvano out, it’s possible a Senate version could make its way to a vote in a later session.

In a statement, Galvano said a merger would be “premature.” He wants to give O'Shea time to fix problems that have plagued New College.

“President O’Shea is working hard to address ongoing enrollment issues, as well as other performance metrics, and I support those important efforts,” Galvano said in a statement. “Therefore, in my view, a merger at this point would be premature, and so I decided to not allow it to move forward.”

Galvano's office declined to comment on the possibility of the bill’s future passing.

The struggle over the merger proposal comes as public institutions in states across the country -- such as Connecticut, Georgia, Minnesota and Wisconsin -- consider or execute mergers, often in the face of financial challenges. Such mergers frequently stoke controversy. Details about the way merger proposals are crafted, including which groups are brought to the table, are often key points of contention.

In Florida, stakeholders have taken issue with the merger proposal itself and the way it was introduced.

Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, a nonprofit government watchdog, issued a scalding statement arguing against the merger.

“The Florida Legislature has generated a firestorm with a last-minute plan to merge the two smallest state universities into one of the largest, the University of Florida, swallowing up what makes the target schools unique and appealing,” the statement read. “This scheme sprang up without warning, without study, and without even the courtesy of informing the affected university presidents. It appears to be ill thought-out and it represents exactly what people dislike about the often-secretive legislative process. It should be stopped before it goes any further.”

According to O’Shea, the bill didn’t find much support in the Legislature -- only Fine spoke in support of the bill during an appropriations committee hearing.

Both Florida Polytechnic and New College lobbied against the bill. Randy Avent, president of Florida Polytechnic, met twice with Fine to discuss the legislation. Students, staff and alumni of both campuses rallied to support their independence.

“I was really touched and very grateful for the outpouring of support in the community and the state and across the nation,” O’Shea said. “It was really quite staggering.”

A primary sticking point for presidents at both institutions proposed to be merged into the University of Florida was the cost-per-degree calculations used to justify the merger. The Florida Board of Governors calculates cost per degree by dividing the total amount of state funding to a particular college in a fiscal year by the number of graduates obtaining degrees in that same year. According to a House staff analysis of the bill, the state cost per degree at the University of Florida is $21,598, compared with $197,681 at New College and $180,958 at Florida Polytechnic.

“Unfortunately, those numbers are right because they got them for the Board of Governors,” Avent said. But they’re missing key context that explains the huge difference, he continued.

Florida Polytechnic University, established as an independent university in 2012 after being a branch campus of the University of South Florida since 1988, is the newest of 12 colleges in the State University System of Florida. The university has received state funding for a lot of “start-up costs” for campus development and building out its programs. That anomalous influx of state cash, divided by the university’s first graduating class -- its smallest to date -- left the cost-per-degree calculation far higher than what is accurate, Avent said.

A revised number taking into consideration the influx of initial state spending and the low start-up-year graduation rate would put Florida Polytechnic’s cost per degree just above the University of Florida’s, Avent said.

Florida Polytechnic is also an engineering school, and engineering degrees are far more expensive than popular degrees offered at the University of Florida, such as degrees in the liberal arts and social sciences, Avent said.

“We offer a degree for a very competitive price,” Avent said. “For the degree that it is.”

O’Shea also took issue with the cost-per-degree numbers used.

“Those numbers are not absurd, but they’re close,” he said. He explained that the University of Florida’s low cost per degree includes two-year and one-year master's programs, which pull the per-degree costs down, and that New College only offers four-year degrees.

“Once we get to 1,200 students, it will probably be around $80,000 for a four-year degree, and that will be the same if you looked at the science or engineering schools at the University of Florida,” O'Shea said.​

“At least we’ll be prepared,” O’Shea said.

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