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Florida's higher education system ranks best in the nation

A 2019 ranking of all 50 states' education systems shows the Sunshine State serves its college students well.

  • Florida may be the butt of many jokes, but its higher education system is second to none.
  • However, the state's PreK-12 education lacks comparatively, giving Massachusetts the top spot for the best education overall.
  • Americans believe their state governments should prioritize education, but much work needs to be done to catch up to other countries.

Let's face it, the other 49 states aren't always kind to Florida. We roll our eyes at how the state horked a national election, made mothers terrified of bath salts, and plays host to python sex parties. We laugh when its citizens threaten each other with turtle armies or a major newspaper endorses a Florida congressional candidate who believes she was abducted by aliens (#onlyinflorida).

Comedian John Oliver summed up how other states feel about their southern kin best when he said: "I mean come on, Florida. You're Florida!"

But the Sunshine State deserves more respect in the eyes of the other states. According to the U.S. News & World Report's 2019 Best States ranking, Florida has the best higher education system in the nation and one of the best education systems overall.

Florida #1 in higher education

Florida State University is ranked number 70 among the U.S.'s 100 best colleges, one of three top ranking higher education schools in Florida.

(Photo: Jackson Myers/Flickr)

The U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking compares states based on eight key categories: education, health care, the economy, infrastructure, opportunity, fiscal stability, crime and corrections, and natural environment. State rankings are based on how they perform in predetermined metrics, with scores weighted on citizen priorities as determined by a survey.

Metrics for the higher education rank included the number of citizens holding degrees, costs of attending college, student debt burden, and time it takes to complete a two- or four-year program.

As reported by the Tampa Bay Times, "the state recently announced a 9.5 percent increase in its college graduation rate over the last five years." It has decreased the cost of pursuing a bachelor's degree, too, reducing it to less than $10,000 after financial aid for the average student.

Under these standards, Florida has set a high bar. It beat out Washington, Wyoming, and California (which took second, third, and fourth respectively). This is the third year in a row Florida has taken the top spot, and the state sports three of the country's 100 best colleges.

"It is no surprise that U.S. News & World Report has again named Florida the top state in the nation for higher education," Governor Ron DeSantis said in a news release. "Our state colleges and universities have prioritized affordability and pathways for career and life and, as a result, they are transforming our state. I look forward to celebrating continued success as we build on this positive momentum."

Ranking the nation's education systems

However, Florida's sterling score did not carry over to PreK-12 education. It lingered in the middle of the pack, coming in at 27. Instead, Massachusetts ranked number one in primary and secondary education. These results were based on metrics such as preschool enrollment, SAT and ACT scores, standardized test scores in math and reading, and high school graduation rate.

To determine which state had the best overall education system, U.S. News & World Report then combined state scores for PreK-12 and higher education (weighing each as 50/50). In order, the top ten are:

  1. Massachusetts
  2. New Jersey
  3. Florida
  4. Washington
  5. New Hampshire
  6. Nebraska
  7. Virginia
  8. Vermont
  9. Iowa
  10. Utah

Of the 10 states with the best overall education, seven appeared on U.S. News & World Report's best states list. Florida ranked 13th.

You can read U.S. News & World Report's methodology here.

Still room to improve

To weigh its index score, U.S. News & World Report's surveyed more than 50,000 Americans over three years. The survey asked residents in each state how they felt their governments handled key categories and where they wanted resources to be focused. The respondents had to rank each category — 1 being the most important, 8 the least.

Americans felt strongly that state governments should make education a priority (15.8 percent). Only health care received more support and just barely (16 percent). Other categories such as natural environment (8.4 percent), crime and corrections (9.9 percent), and infrastructure (12.9 percent) received less enthusiasm.

Increased public support has likely played a part in advancing the nation's educational systems. The national high school graduation rate is 85 percent, the highest it has ever been. Millennials have become the most education generation, earning more bachelor's degrees than Gen X or the baby boomers.

But there's still room for improvement. Graduation rates for whites, Asians, and Pacific Islanders continues to outdo rates for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. School funding remains tied to local property taxes, meaning schools in poor districts that need money are unlikely to get it. Higher education can be prohibitively expensive. And education is still not a right in the United States, unlike other democracies.

States like Florida and Massachusetts can serve as examples to help each state develop a more productive and charitable education system. They can keep the python sex parties, though.

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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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