Jump to Navigation
My Turn
Other Views from Those in the Know
Rep. Will Weatherford
Taking Florida’s Higher Education System Online

For the past several years, elected officials around the nation have been seeking ways to stimulate job growth as our nation’s economy continues to recover.  While economic development incentives, a lower tax burden and business-friendly regulatory system are helpful; there is perhaps no more effective tool in a state’s economic toolbox than a quality education.

In today’s economy, the greatest predictor of whether you can get a job is your level of education.  Our nation’s unemployment rate for Americans with less than a high school diploma is 12.6 percent.  For high school graduates with no college education, it’s 8 percent.  And for college graduates, it’s 4.2 percent. That means college graduates are more than twice as likely to find a job in today’s economy than non-high school graduates.  Clearly, an investment in new learning opportunities is an investment in our economic future.

Florida has a history of doing what it takes to achieve success in the classroom, and in the 21st Century, that now includes embracing new ideas founded on merit, excellence, innovation and creativity. We must push the envelope and explore what Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen calls the “disruptive innovations” to the system.  We must learn to adapt and perform at the speed of light – a challenge like we have never seen before.

Consider that the top six jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004.  That means today’s college students are learning skills that may not be in demand when they enter the workforce.  With the costs of college on the rise and the global economy more competitive than ever, this is simply unacceptable.  Our universities must do better by innovating and embracing new ways to deliver tomorrow’s skills faster, more inexpensively and efficiently.  Businesses are forced to adapt and innovate and so too should our higher education system.  Student demand and market supply are already way ahead of us. It’s time for us to embrace technology and challenge the antiquated notions about how our students should be educated.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced they will be offering courses online for free and other schools will likely follow.  While some Florida schools offer courses online, we need a college that specializes in online learning.  In Tallahassee, we have started a conversation about how Florida will become a national leader in online education and I believe that includes creating the nation’s first online public university.

Soon, the Board of Governors will begin researching and shaping a framework for an online university.  We’ve already developed the first online K-12 school, Florida Virtual School, with more than 122,000 students who are currently receiving a high quality education at a fraction of the cost.  It’s time to bring the same principles and technology, the way students are learning today, to our university system.

The current model in Tallahassee is broken and allowing politicians to push pet projects for their alma mater or local university is not what we need to increase global competitiveness.  Instead, we need to develop a system where certain universities can play to their strengths and complement one another.  Having a university solely focused on reaching students in rural and urban communities across Florida and around the globe would take us to newer heights of excellence, access, and cost effectiveness; three worthy goals for our state.  Whether we like it or not, higher education is changing.  We can embrace the change or stay behind the curve.

Florida is a leader in education reform and we must continue to push the envelope.  I envision a state where everyone is rewarded for their hard work – in the classroom, in the workforce and in the broader economy. Improving education is the key to moving Florida forward; embracing technology to meet the much-needed demand is a common sense solution that should be considered. As the late Steve Jobs said, “we must invent the future.”

Will Weatherford is the Speaker-Designate of the Florida House of Representatives, a Republican and a state representative from Wesley Chapel.

Published Thursday, May 17, 2012