Board OKs 8% increase in tuition


Published: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 11:24 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - The state Board of Governors approved a measure here Thursday that would boost the cost of tuition at public universities by 8 percent in the fall, stopping short of a more dramatic proposal that called for 13 percent increases every year for five years.

The proposal would cost full-time students across the state an additional $186 per year in tuition, but Florida would likely retain its status as the nation's cheapest public university system.

Charles Edwards, who had proposed far more robust tuition hikes, said the board was "delaying the inevitable" by not embracing larger increases. He noted after the vote, however, that he was glad to see an increase of some kind approved.

The tuition measure will not have an impact on the University of Florida because UF has already been granted legislative authority to raise its tuition by 15 percent - 7 percent higher than the board approved statewide. A 15 percent tuition hike at UF would raise credit-hour fees from $77 to $89. That would bring the total cost of annual tuition and fees to about $3,588 for full-time UF students if fees remain stagnant.

In addition to raising tuition, the board embraced a plan to work with lawmakers to fashion a more predictable funding model that would help universities to determine how much to expect each year from the Legislature.

"Every year we're always in a fight for how much general revenue we get," said Sheila McDevitt, vice chairwoman of the board.

The tuition increase comes as state universities struggle to address a massive budget shortfall, which is expected to lead to a $157 million reduction in funds for higher education this year. The approved tuition increase would raise $32 million for the State University System - far short of what's needed to cover the expected cuts.

To deal with the shortfall, the board also approved a measure that requires universities to adjust their budgets to the new fiscal reality in Florida. The resolution requires each university to "align its student enrollment with budget cuts," meaning universities could not enroll more students than the Legislature provides funding to educate. Currently, there are about 6,000 such "unfunded" students whose tuition only covers about one quarter of their education.

The board's ability to push through the tuition increase remains in question because of an ongoing legal battle about whether the board or the Legislature has the authority to set tuition.

Lawmakers have historically opposed large tuition increases, in part because they would raise the cost of Bright Futures, the state's popular merit-based scholarship program. Critics also charge that such hikes threaten Florida Prepaid, a program that allows parents to lock in tuition rates for future students.

Ken Pruitt, the Republican Senate president from Port St. Lucie, quickly issued a statement condemning the board for even entertaining a 13 percent tuition increase.

"It's frightening to think that the Board of Governors would seriously consider a proposal that would, in effect, destroy the prepaid college tuition program in Florida," Pruitt said. "This is the camel's nose under the tent. Left unchecked by the Legislature, I have no doubt the BOG's original 65 percent tuition increase would have become a reality."

Of the money raised from the tuition hike approved by the board, 70 percent would go toward hiring faculty and 30 percent would go toward need-based financial aid, according to the approved resolution. The breakdown is designed to address two areas where Florida is sorely lacking compared to other states. Florida ranks 42nd in the proportion of financial aid awarded to need-based students, and the state has the worst student/faculty ratio in the nation, according to data presented to the board.

The state's average student/faculty ratio is 31:1, compared with the national average of 25:1.

UF's student/faculty ratio of 21:1 bests the state and national average, but it's high compared with the university's peer group. In the 2007 U.S. News & World Report rankings, UF's ratio ranked third from last among 120 surveyed institutions.

Gus Stavros, a new board member and retired head of a manufacturing company in Pinellas County, noted that education leaders have been pushing unsuccessfully for major tuition increases for a long time with little progress. He condemned the board's failure to move aggressively on the issue.

"I've only been on this board one year, (and) I'm embarrassed," he said. "I have never been involved in a mediocre organization in my life."

Jack Stripling can be reached at 352-374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.

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