Floridians are enticed by the siren call of our major universities. High schools students are lured by the school spirit and athletic prowess of the University of Florida and of Florida State University. Parents are tempted by lower costs, Bright Futures, and the Florida Prepaid College Savings Plan. Yet there are dirty little secrets about public universities: low graduation rates and hidden costs.
The Florida Department of Education tracks four-year graduation rates for Florida high schools. On average, our high schools students are graduating on time at a rate of 75 percent. What about our colleges?
According to the College Board – the people who administer the SAT – students attending the University of Florida graduate at a 4-year rate of only 58 percent. FSU students graduate at 48 percent. UCF students and USF students graduate at rates of 34 and 23 percent, respectively. Something is wrong.
By contrast to these public universities, the three colleges in Florida with the highest on-time graduation rates are the University of Miami, Rollins College, and Eckerd College. All of them are private institutions.
Private colleges generally have better graduation results than do public universities. In Boston alone, there are 10 private colleges with higher 4-year graduation rates than our best Florida universities have for 6 years.
The reason for the difference in success isn’t hard to understand. Few teenagers know what they want to study or what they want to pursue as a career. However, public universities demand that students pick a major course of study even before they step foot on campus. Most students have no experience that can help them pick courses, nor does a large university have the time or resources to guide its students adequately. As a result, a vast majority of students change majors at least once, and usually two or three times. Without a well-designed plan, students don’t reach a goal efficiently.
In contrast, most private colleges allow students one or two years, or more, to declare a major. A private college usually provides a curriculum and counselors that guide its students to find their way amongst a whole world of choices. They often house students in campus dormitories for all four years, as opposed to sending students to off-campus apartments after only one year. The environment in which a college student lives will direct the student’s progress, for better or for worse.
Spending extra years in college means spending extra money for college. Bright Futures will only cover the first five years of college, and only up to a limited number of credit hours. Moreover, Bright Futures does not cover summer school, yet all students who enter a Florida public university with fewer than 60 credits must take classes during the summer. Because students have their own apartments, with 12-month leases, they prefer to take summer classes with their friends – thus making their “regular” semesters less rigorous – rather than come home and live under their parents’ roofs.
The apparently lower cost of public college is misleading. Public schools are businesses run on tuition and tax dollars. Private colleges are businesses run on research money and alumni donations. As a result, private colleges have more money available to help students with scholarships and financial aid. For example, 60 percent of Harvard students pay $12,000 per year or less for everything: tuition, room and board, insurance, and even travel to and from Boston. Washington and Lee University has an astounding $608,000 of endowment per student. Check the monetary calculators that are required on all college admissions websites. For the vast majority of families, private colleges cost substantially less than do public universities, even with Bright Futures.
Our Florida public universities do have tremendous resources and excellent educators. Those students who are mature and sophisticated enough to know their paths can do exceptionally well at UF, FSU, USF and UCF. However, there are risks and costs involved in placing uncertain students into the wrong environment.