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    For a Better Florida

    In state spending, we're dead last and cutting back

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 23, 2003

    Michael Milligan figures he will spend a quarter-million dollars to put his four kids though college. Maybe more if Gov. Jeb Bush has his way.

    Bush is proposing the biggest tuition increase in a decade, deep cuts in financial aid and drastic changes that would all but eliminate Florida's popular prepaid tuition plan.

    Also on the table are spending cuts that would mean Milligan's kids would get less education for his money.

    "If families are struggling now, they're really going to be struggling later," Milligan said. "Parents will end up having a larger burden and, in many cases, kids won't be able to go to college."

    Milligan, a 46-year-old marketing executive, has two stepsons in Clearwater relying on the prepaid program that allows people to pay for tuition and fees for a future college education at today's prices. And, if their grades are high enough, they also could use the lottery-based, merit-driven Bright Futures scholarships, which pay for all or most of tuition for about 120,000 students in Florida.

    Already, middle class families across the nation are finding it increasingly difficult each year to afford the skyrocketing costs of college. Now, Florida is about to embark on dramatic changes that would significantly alter how families save and pay for those costs.

    "It appears we are the last line of defense between college opportunity and hard times for Florida students and their families," said Senate Minority Leader Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. "Raising tuition and cutting scholarships is only going to make things tougher for Florida's families."

    Meanwhile, Bush is proposing cuts of $148.8-million from university operating expenses, another $20-million to $30-million out of Bright Futures scholarships and no money for rising student enrollment. Overall, his higher education budget of $2.4-billion for next year recommends a decrease of roughly 5 percent.

    For the 260,000 students at Florida's 11 universities, that would mean fewer teachers and degrees, larger classes and more competition to get into schools because of enrollment caps.

    The University of North Florida in Jacksonville already has announced a hiring freeze and delays in new academic programs. Other schools are struggling to decide what would be dumped if Bush's plan becomes reality.

    Next year's cuts would come on top of a $167.5-million drop this year and a total of $450-million in cuts over the past 12 years. In the past four years, factoring inflation, the amount of state money allocated for each university student has dropped 15 percent.

    "It's a dismantling of quality at our universities," said Steve Sauls, a vice president at Florida International University in Miami. "Students are paying more and they are getting less."

    As a result, students could flood community colleges, which are more affordable and have more room. But they aren't getting money for new enrollment either.

    Bush would take money from higher education and give it to K-12 education, leaving the two arms of the governor's seamless education system fighting over the same money. For example, Bush suggests moving $76-million from university construction projects to public schools.

    "The bottom line is, there is no way to sugarcoat this," Bush has said. "This is going to be a tough budget."

    Bush has repeatedly blamed the cuts on a voter-approved constitutional amendment reducing class size in public schools. But critics say state leaders are using the amendment as an excuse.

    "I get the impression that higher education is an expendable item," said Pablo Paez, chairman of the Florida Student Association and student body president at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "We need to ask our public officials what our priorities are."

    In fact, national figures suggest that funding higher education is a low priority in Florida. Neither the state nor the students are shouldering a comparatively heavy burden. Florida ranks last out of the 50 states in per capita spending on higher education. And only two states have lower tuition; Florida students pay less than 25 percent of the cost of educating themselves.

    By comparison, North Carolina, a state revered for its higher education institutions, ranks 16th in per capita spending, and 39 states have higher tuition.

    Florida university tuition is $2,691 a year. Bush proposes increasing it to $3,027.38. The national average is $4,260.

    Florida community college tuition is $1,525 a year. Bush would increase it to $1,639.38. The national average is $1,807.

    Students also spend an average of $6,000 a year for housing and food, $700 for books and supplies, and $3,500 for other expenses, including transportation.

    "I don't see how I can complain," said Dan Holsenbeck, a vice president at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "We just have to understand that we have one of the best deals in the country."

    That provides little comfort to families who had been counting on one way to plan for college but now face entirely different costs and payment options.

    Florida families already pay 23 percent of their income to attend public universities, compared with 18 percent in the top states, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. That's attributed to a combination of low incomes and too little financial aid.

    "It's unfair," said Lisa Heyveld, 41, a Largo legal assistant with four daughters. "But it's something that I will have to handle if it happens. Whatever it takes for my daughters to go to college."

    Almost 1,000 people have written Bush, Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, to complain about proposed changes. Hundreds of students marched in the capital against Bright Futures alterations.

    "I understand that money has to come from somewhere to make up for the smaller class sizes that have been voted in, but to be honest I feel that this is not the place to take it from," Denise Palazzolo wrote in a letter to Bush about the prepaid and Bright Futures programs. "It is like taking food out of one person's mouth to give to someone else. In the end there will be many more children that will not be able to afford to go to college."

    Even university presidents, hired by Bush appointees and usually unwilling to speak out against the governor and Republican lawmakers, have been vocal about their displeasure and vowed to join together to lobby the Legislature.

    Based on Bush administration recommendations, the Legislature will consider:

    -- Raising tuition 12.5 percent at universities and 7 percent at community colleges while allowing schools to raise rates an unlimited amount for out-of-state and graduate students. It would be the eighth straight year Florida students have seen an increase, a trend that would likely continue by as much as 10 percent each year until tuition reaches the national average.

    -- Reducing the amount of money paid to recipients of Bright Futures, the state's largest financial aid program, which pays for all or most of tuition for 120,000 students in Florida.

    -- Allowing individual public universities to set their own tuition. This would essentially bankrupt the popular prepaid tuition program, which doesn't anticipate huge jumps in tuition.

    -- Not increasing the amount of money, $85.6-million, set aside for need-based scholarships, which the state has been criticized for not having enough of in the past.

    But Democratic lawmakers recommend taking $60-million from Bush's program that recognizes schools for high test scores to create a needs-based scholarship program and restore general revenue dollars to higher education so universities aren't forced to increase tuition by 12.5 percent.

    Florida is following a national trend to shift the cost of higher education from state government to other sources, including students or grants.

    "It's a public policy change to make public higher education more self-supporting," said Carl Carlucci, executive vice president and chief financial officer at the University of South Florida.

    State spending for public colleges and universities dropped sharply last year, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. At the same time, tuition and fees rose in most states, some by as much as 25 percent.

    Education Commissioner Jim Horne said universities received the brunt of the cuts in Bush's budget because they receive less than 40 percent of their money from the state and have opportunities to recoup the losses in other ways.

    "Something has to give and it begins to give here in higher education," Horne said. "Clearly we need to set course to shift some of the burden."

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