Bad news all around for college students


Published: Friday, January 30, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 11:12 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - Pity the college student in Florida.

State funding of higher education is shrinking as tuition and textbook costs are growing. To make matters worse, undergraduates are leaving $24 million of federal financial aid untapped.

That's the picture painted Thursday at a meeting of the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state's 11 universities. The board heard a report finding nearly a quarter of undergraduates statewide who are eligible for federal Pell Grants fail to obtain them. "Leaving $24 million in Pell Grants on the table is unacceptable at this time of crisis when students need every dollar of aid available to them," said Paul Dosal, executive director of ENLACE Florida.

ENLACE promotes access and success for under-represented students. As part of that effort, the group is coordinating an event next month in Gainesville and other locations to help students fill out federal aid forms.

The information comes as federal lawmakers look to expand Pell Grants as part of the economic stimulus plan. It also comes as state funding cuts loom, and as another report showed, students face rising textbook costs.

College textbook costs jumped about 19 percent from 2003 to 2006 and students now pay about $900 a year for textbooks, the board reported. As part of a new state law, the board moved forward a plan to reduce costs through steps such as encouraging faculty to use Internet textbooks.

Continued cuts to higher education provided the backdrop to the meeting. About $290 million in cuts have been made in the past two years statewide and another round of deep cuts is expected in the upcoming legislative session.

"This is going to cut into the bone of the State University System," said Chancellor Mark Rosenberg.

"We are regrettably going to see amputation of programs" at universities, he said.

Board chairwoman Sheila McDevitt said the board's first priority was a plan to give universities power to raise tuition to help offset cuts. The plan could be heard early in the session and its sponsors have discouraged any efforts to make changes, she said.

"The way the bill is now is a tremendous step forward and we need to appreciate what we're getting," she said.

McDevitt said another priority is maintaining funding for the University of Florida College of Medicine and the other medical schools in the state. The programs are crucial to the health of the state, she said. Finding state sources of funding for any program will be difficult, she said, but the federal stimulus plan is expected to include money for higher education.

UF President Bernie Machen is visiting Washington, D.C., this week to seek information on the stimulus plan. One part of the plan would expand Pell Grants, which are awarded to lower-income students and don't need to be repaid.

The board estimated that 22,000 undergraduates statewide in 2005 - or more than 10 percent of undergraduates in the State University System - were eligible for the grants yet failed to obtain them.

One higher education official said that even if students qualify for Bright Futures, Pell Grants would help cover the myriad other expenses that college students must pay for.

The complex application could be part of the problem, said Braulio Colon, assistant director of ENLACE Florida. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is a lengthy form required for students to be eligible for aid.

"If you're the first in your family to go to college, I think it would be very intimidating," Colon said.

President Obama proposed simplifying the application process in his campaign. One idea is creating a check-off box on income tax forms, which would forward parents' needed financial information to their children's aid forms.

Rosenberg said the responsibility of helping students obtain aid falls to high school counselors as well as college financial aid officers.

"Truthfully, it's a shared responsibility," he said.

The meeting marked the last in the tenure of Rosenberg, who steps down next month. University of North Florida President John Delaney will lead the board as a search is under way to find a permanent successor. McDevitt praised Rosenberg for his three years on the board. "He's helped us though some of the toughest times," she said.

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