Nearly a century ago, large numbers of kids from poor immigrant families flocked into the City College of New York (CCNY), now City University of New York (CUNY). Many went on to become intellectual and business giants. I was talking to Mark Rosenberg, the president of Miami’s Florida International University (FIU) the other day, and realized that FIU is somewhat the CCNY for a new era. It did not even have students 50 years ago, but now has an extraordinary 57,000 enrolled, mostly members of minority groups, including probably the largest single collegiate concentration of Hispanic students.
Like CCNY, FIU is a commuter school with students who are either immigrants or, more often, children or grandchildren of immigrants to America. A lot of them have day jobs and go to school in the evenings or on weekends. President Rosenberg tells me FIU parking lots are as full on Saturday or at nights as during weekday primetime academic hours. He believes the mission of his school is to provide access to large numbers, giving educational opportunities opening the door to occupational opportunities. Himself the son of a Holocaust survivor (whom I knew), Rosenberg accepts that fulfilling his mission means his school’s reputation may take a hit. In the latest Forbes Best Colleges rankings, FIU is a fairly respectable but not outstanding 459th, well below such other Sunshine State rivals such as the University of Florida (68th), Florida State (163rd), private nearby rival the University of Miami (100th), and even below another even more fast-growing competitor, the University of Central Florida (271st).
Still, the school does pretty well by contemporary American collegiate standards, with both four and six-year graduation rates approximating the American average, and students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, averaging more than $46,000 in annual earnings after leaving. Tuition fees have been frozen for years, which Rosenberg views as a challenge, not a calamity. Indeed static fees have enabled enrollments to grow (although he thinks the school’s enrollment surge is about over). Capital costs are lower than at most schools because buildings are used so intensely, meaning fewer square feet to air condition. Heavy use of tutors helps keep retention and graduation rates respectable and saves money compared to higher priced faculty alternatives (although the faculty has continued to grow). A large portion of students do some of their work online, which President Rosenberg reminds me, in the long run, lowers capital costs.
Florida has no income tax, and being relatively new FIU has a very modest endowment. Many state university presidents grouse about inadequate state support, claiming their ability to offer a quality education is suffering owing to perverse priorities of state politicians. Rosenberg surprised me, however. He said low taxes have helped attract large numbers of persons to move to Florida, so the Sunshine State is not worried about the birth dearth starting to severely impact schools in northern states, states now sending many of their citizens to low tax Florida. He said the state has been innovative in encouraging coordination between the various universities, for example, nudging state schools into using the same course numbers at all institutions, making the transfer of credit between schools much easier.
I ponder whether there is an optimal size university, whether growth beyond, say, 50,000 students affords no economies of scale but leads to a lack of a sense of community and excessive campus congestion. Rosenberg is no longer pursuing an expansionist enrollment growth strategy, perhaps tacitly acknowledging that diminishing returns to growth exist. Will technology ultimately reduce the need for physical campuses? Time will tell, but I doubt they will die anytime soon.
America is a land of immigrants. Within a generation of the landing of the Mayflower in 1620, early immigrants started Harvard. Immigrants on average are hardworking, save copiously, assimilate well, and their children and grandchildren are highly successful. Colleges are a vehicle to help make that happen. America needs Florida International-type universities as much as—arguably more than—it needs elite gated academic communities. For some, the preferred academic vehicle may be on-line institutions like Western Governors University or the University of Southern New Hampshire. But there still is a need for face to face instruction, and schools like FIU provide an important service.