Fla. university leaders want to avoid tuition hike

Florida university leaders won't seek tuition increases if lawmakers increase state funding

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- State university presidents and student government leaders are offering Florida lawmakers a tuition deal.

They said on Wednesday that they won't seek tuition increases next year if the Legislature agrees to spend $118 million more in state money on the 12 schools.

Gov. Rick Scott has staunchly opposed tuition increases, and he praised that part of the proposal but not the funding portion. He only said he was looking forward to working with the presidents and student leaders as he puts together his budgeting and policy recommendations to the Legislature. Scott this year also supported a $300 million reduction in state funding for the universities, part of a 40 percent cut over the past five years.

"We know Florida families want the best value possible from our higher education system," Scott said in a statement. "We are pleased to share this important goal with many of Florida's finest higher education leaders."

House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, was noncommittal, saying he hadn't yet seen details of the proposal. Like Scott, though, he said lawmakers would be willing to work with university leaders.

The announcement was part of the kickoff for a student-led campaign dubbed "Aim Higher." It's focused on uniting students and community leaders in support of more funding for higher education as well as raising awareness of strong returns to the public from investing in the universities.

"We encourage all Floridians to stand with us and our 330,000 students," said University of West Florida President Judy Bense. "Let's invest in future doctors and scientists who someday could save our lives, future engineers who will build safe roads and bridges, and future teachers who will provide our children with first-class educations."

The Legislature can order across-the-board tuition increases and the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System, can approve increases requested by individual universities. State law limits the increases to a combined 15 percent annually.

The $118 million in new state funding the presidents are seeking would be equal to a 15 percent tuition increase.

For the past several years, tuition has gone up at or near the maximum amount, but Florida's rates remain among the lowest in the nation. Annual tuition for a normal course load ranges from $4,154 at two University of South Florida branch campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota to $4,669 at Florida International University.

"For the sake of Florida's students, businesses and communities, we need to keep a college education affordable and accessible to all," said Cortez Whatley, president of the Florida Student Association and student body president at the University of Central Florida.

The Legislature last year passed a bill that would have allowed the state's top two research universities, the University of Florida and Florida State University, to exceed the legal limit for a tuition increase, but it was vetoed by Scott.

The governor then created the Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform to look into tuition and other issues. That panel has recommended that "preeminent universities," which would have to meet certain quality criteria based on their missions, be allowed to increase tuition rates beyond the limit.

Scott, meanwhile, has challenged Florida's 28 community and state colleges to offer four-year degree programs costing no more than $10,000. That's about $3,300 below their current mean. Most of the colleges' offerings, though, are two-year programs.

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