TALLAHASSEE — An ambitious university-consolidation plan that folds Florida’s youngest and smallest colleges into the University of Florida was backed by a key House committee on Tuesday, following testy exchanges between state lawmakers and emotional testimony from students.
The measure, approved by the House Appropriations Committee on a near party-line vote, would strip New College of Florida and Florida Polytechnic University from their independent status and merge both institutions with UF in Gainesville. Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, was the only Republican to vote against the measure (HB 7087).
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Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican from Palm Bay, said it is the Florida Legislature’s job to make tough financial decisions — such as the university mergers — if it means taxpayer money will be spent more efficiently.
"I’m doing this now because it is the right thing to do. Spending is not caring. Spending more efficiently is," Fine said.
The massive consolidation proposal was dropped by the House three weeks ago and caught university leaders by surprise, quickly fueling fierce opposition from state lawmakers in Sarasota and Manatee counties as well as students and faculty who study and work at the state colleges.
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"I believe that this is a classic case of simply evaluating the cost of everything and knowing the value of nothing," Kim McShane, a New College graduate, told the House committee Tuesday.
When Fine first rolled out the proposal earlier this month, he had envisioned merging New College with Florida State University, but that plan was dropped days after Gov. Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said it made more sense to consolidate the liberal arts school with a university that is geographically nearer.
Fine said FSU was taken off the table because it would be more cost-efficient to merge both schools with one university. UF was nailed as the option because it was closer to New College and Florida Polytechnic, Fine said.
But that answer did not quell Democrats' concerns, and, after pointed questioning, Fine admitted that he has not seen any analysis from a university or government entity showing that the university consolidations would save money.
"We have no idea of what the actual cost savings of this is going to be. None whatsoever," Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, echoed Jenne’s concerns.
"We say that we are concerned about costs and yet we don’t recognize the value of these institutions and we don’t even know what, if any, cost savings there will be if we implement this bill. This is a knee-jerk bill," Smith said.
Under the House bill, New College and Florida Polytechnic would need to submit a merger application, which would have to be approved by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Fine said he does not know how long the merger would take or the details of the consolidation plans, such as which institution would be identified in diplomas of New College and Florida Polytechnic graduates if the mergers are approved.
The diploma issue was one of the details that concerned students who testified before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
"We don’t know how our credits will transfer because none of this is outlined in the merger and as current students, we are fearful of what that could mean," Sofia Lombardi, a New College freshman, told the panel.
If the mergers are approved, UF would determine many of the consolidation details, Fine said. The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, would have oversight over the merger.
The bill would allow undergraduate and graduate students at New College and Polytechnic to pay the same tuition and fees they were paying before the merger. Those prices would stick with the students until they graduate.
The University of Florida did not immediately respond to The News Service of Florida’s requests for comment, and none of its officials appeared before the committee on Tuesday.
Fine maintains the move is needed to save the state money, and that lawmakers are the only ones with the power to grant such a plan.
"These universities became universities because of decisions this Legislature made. They didn’t happen on their own. A stork didn’t fly over the state and drop a basket," he said. "We’re the only ones who can merge them. That is our job."
Fine argued that an analysis he conducted on the state’s cost-per-degree at all colleges and universities demonstrated that the merger would save taxpayer dollars.
The state cost-per-degree at UF is $21,598, compared to $197,681 at New College and $180,958 at Polytechnic, according to a House staff analysis of the bill.
But Florida Polytechnic University President Randy Avent disputed the costs cited in the House staff analysis, arguing the calculation is based on outdated information from the 6-year-old institution.
"The figure being cited for the total cost-per-Florida Poly degree was calculated based on our first graduating class, which was our smallest, and includes nonrecurring costs associated with starting the university and building its campus," Avent told the committee Tuesday.
"Our projected cost per degree this year is less than half that amount and will continue to decrease as we grow the student body," he added.
As the House considers the plan, Avent told the News Service in an interview that the administration is already seeing a decline in the number of applications for the upcoming semester.
"We are certainly seeing a drop in that and really where it is going to have an impact is having (students) make deposits," he said.
This story originally published to ocala.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.