But it also criticizes the system for the growth in administrative costs and salaries, and for policies that appear to restrict student speech and academic freedom.
"Florida Rising: An Assessment of Public Universities in the Sunshine State," a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and The James Madison Institute, looked at 11 public four-year undergraduate programs in the state university system. It's the 11th state report the council and institute have produced and will be presented Thursday at the Board of Governors meeting in Tampa.
"Overall, Florida public universities are on a prudent and successful course during these difficult economic times. Significant challenges and difficult decisions over priorities remain," the report said. "It is clear, however, that Florida has high potential to be a model for other states."
The Florida Board of Governors, which assisted by providing data from its annual accountability studies, praised the report for essentially endorsing the board's agenda to improve student success and access, enhance online learning and make higher education affordable.
"It captures what's going on in the state quite well and the activities of this board," said Manoj Chopra, a University of Central Florida engineering professor who serves as the faculty member on the Board of Governors. "It's telling us we are on the right track."
State funding for the system between 2007 and 2012 dropped from $2.6 billion to $1.7 billion, the executive summary notes, while state funding per full-time student dropped from $7,656 to $4,387.
Tuition increased an average 58 percent for the same period to try to make up for those losses but still remains among the lowest in the nation.
"I view it as an assessment of how (state) universities are functioning, particularly under the impacts of the budget cuts at this time," Marc Heft, a dentistry professor and president of the University of Florida Faculty Senate, said after reviewing the report.
Heft said it is important to understand budget cuts as part of a national tapestry.
"It is really important to understand that UF lives in a world with its sister institutions where the state contribution is appreciated and important, but we're competing on a national and global field as well," Heft said. "As we compete for federal funding, we've seen problems, sequestration being the worst, and it's becoming more and more competitive to secure that funding."
Gov. Rick Scott said the report confirms his belief in keeping tuition down for families.
"The increase in tuition and fees have demanded an increasing percentage of Florida's household income and saddled many Florida graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in debt," Scott said in a news release.
The report praised the statewide six-year graduation rate of 66 percent but noted that six universities had rates under 50 percent. Only UF and Florida State University had six-year graduation rates above 60 percent.
UF's six-year rate is 85 percent.
The report also noted that athletic spending varied significantly over five years: with increases as low as 1.6 percent to as high as 190 percent. UF's athletic spending increased by 22 percent during that time.
During that same period, the report stated, administrative costs grew while instructional costs declined. Based on data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, four universities increased administrative spending more than instructional spending, including UF.
A recent Florida Trend report, using data from the Board of Governors, showed that UF lost 261 tenure and tenure-track positions in five years while gaining 242 administrative posts during the same period.
UF President Bernie Machen disputed those findings Tuesday when asked about it by Board of Governors member Norman Tripp.
"That's a bogus report," Machen told the Board of Governors.
When Tripp asked him to explain how the report was bogus, Machen said, "They classified people as administrative that were faculty." He said he disagreed with categorizing faculty in service roles, such as advisers, as administrators.
"They were using a definition nobody had used before," Machen said.
The report also singled out the lack of core skills and classes, especially in written and oral communications, science and technology, civic knowledge and statistics. No Florida university offers all seven core or general education requirements identified by the study: composition, literature, language, government or history, economics, math and science.
"All but one require a course in composition, nine out of 11 receive credit for Mathematics, and the same number require Natural or Physical Science," the report said. Florida State University carried the most "comprehensive" general education requirements.
UF has been given the authorization to create a nine- to 12-credit-hour curriculum of courses that all freshmen would have to take. Provost Joe Glover described the survey course that all UF freshmen now take, "The Good Life," as an example or model of other courses to follow.
Board of Governors member Edward Morton asked Tuesday if UF was planning to add civics, ethics or economics to the core curriculum it was considering developing.
Glover said the administration had not explicitly identified any particular courses but wanted to engage the faculty in dialogue about what types of courses to offer. He said the courses likely would deal with teaching students to be critical thinkers and to recognize the role science and technology play in their lives.
The report also commended the university system for its efforts to expand online and distance learning and noted that UF has been given the task of creating an online baccalaureate program. The Legislature has agreed to give UF $10 million this year to start up a fully online baccalaureate program, and $5 million a year for the next five years to build the program.
One board member asked Glover why sports management would be one of the first degree programs offered. Glover responded it was one of five programs already well-positioned with a strong online presence that could quickly be expanded into a four-year program.
The report also cites data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which says that 11 of the state's universities have restrictive speech codes. It points out that UF had been ranked on FIRE's "ignominious Speech Codes of the Year list" for language warning of disciplinary action against those who "adversely upset the delicate balance of communal living" until the university rescinded the code.
Chopra said the recommendation to ensure more freedom of speech was a good one, even though the report didn't cite any specific examples of restricted speech on a Florida campus.
Chopra said he didn't agree with one recommendation to create a statewide assessment for graduates at the end of four years, noting that the faculties of each university and the Board of Governors do enough to ensure a high standard is maintained.