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University presidents won't cap student enrollment

They back down after the Board of Governors decides to bar caps on student enrollment but promises to seek more state aid.

Published August 16, 2003

ORLANDO - Florida's university presidents backed away Friday from their threat to cap enrollment, saying they will instead support a state board's push for more money to pay for new students.

The presidents' meeting had been shaping up as a showdown, with the university chiefs expected to vote on limiting enrollment next year because of continued shortfalls in state funding. But those plans deflated when the new state Board of Governors said last week it would not allow enrollment caps.

The board said it would instead press state lawmakers for an additional $81-million: enough to pay for about 11,000 new students.

"The situation has improved dramatically over the past week," said University of Central Florida president John Hitt. He said the board's proposal "would make moot our concerns for enrollment growth."

Despite Hitt's optimism, the board hasn't changed the funding picture at all - yet. Board chairwoman Carolyn Roberts, who attended Friday's meeting, said the governors now have to persuade the Legislature to come up with the money.

"It's going to be a hard collective voice to ignore," she said.

The prospect of enrollment caps sent shock waves through the state, which prides itself on providing access to higher education. The presidents expressed reluctance about limiting enrollment, but argued "there's a relationship between the amount of money we have ... and the kind of job we can do," Hitt said.

Even if the board is successful in its lobbying efforts, the state's 11 universities still won't have enough money to pay for all the new students streaming onto their campuses. This year, for example, the universities will have to come up with $66-million to pay the cost of educating 22,000 students the state did not fund. Next year could be even worse.

The fix proposed by the board would help make up the difference this school year and for 2004-05. A proposal that was rejected would have gone further, restoring funding from the last school year.

"The state of Florida does not fund education the way it should," said University of Florida president Charles Young. "And it certainly doesn't fund higher education the way it should."

Education Commissioner Jim Horne responded to Young and the other president's calls for more money by saying, "I have never known any part of the education community to say they have enough money."

Horne said he supports the board's proposal.

Horne and the university presidents also spoke in favor of a longer-term fix: a comprehensive study of university funding that could lead to systemic change.

Also on the table is a proposal to tie university funding to individual contracts with each university that spell out the institution's goals and needs. That proposal, which first was proposed by UF and Florida State University, now has been expanded to include all the schools.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, who will have a major say in higher education funding next year, was at Friday's meeting. He made no commitments.

"We're just now getting out of the bottom of the recession," Byrd said. "It's too early to talk about (specific funding requests)."

[Last modified August 16, 2003, 01:47:29]

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