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To prod slowpokes, state may hike tuition

Florida universities might return to block tuition, where students pay for a full load even if they take less.

By ANITA KUMAR
Published March 4, 2004

BLOCK TUITION
Florida lawmakers are considering a "block tuition" proposal that would charge full-time university students the same amount regardless of how many classes they actually take. Under the proposal, a university student who takes the typical 12 credit hours, or four classes, would have to pay for the equivalent of 15 hours, or five classes. Here's what that would cost, per semester, starting in 2004-2005:

Current tuition and fees $1,155
Cost under block tuition $1,444
Cost under block tuition and a proposed 7.5% tuition increase $1,552

OTHER PROPOSALS
Florida lawmakers also are considering charging more expensive out-of-state tuition rates to students who are not seeking degrees, or who are taking more credits than necessary for graduation.

Costs per credit hour now $96.24
Costs per credit hour under proposal $457.68
Sources: Florida Department of Education, governor's office

FOUR-YEAR GRADUATE RATE
This is the percentage of full-time students in the 1999 freshman class who graduated in 2003:
School Percentage
New College of Florida*
63
University of Florida
52
Florida State University
43
University of Central Florida
29
University of North Florida
24
University of West Florida
19
Florida International University
18
University of South Florida
17
Florida A&M University
15
Florida Atlantic University
14
Florida Gulf Coast University
12
State average
33
*New College data is from 1997 freshman class who graduated in 2001.
SIX-YEAR GRADUATION RATE
This is the percentage of full-time students in the 1997 freshman class who graduated by 2003:
School Percentage
University of Florida
77
New College of Florida*
74
Florida State University
62
University of Central Florida
53
University of North Florida
48
University of West Florida
38
Florida International University
45
University of South Florida
46
Florida A&M University
44
Florida Atlantic University
34
Florida Gulf Coast University
34
State average
62
Sources: Florida Department of Education, Florida universities

TAMPA - Aby Bandoh paid $1,155 this semester to take four classes at the University of South Florida.

That bill could soon go up dramatically. If state lawmakers give their approval, Bandoh will have to pay $1,444 for the same number of classes next year, an increase of 25 percent.

"What else is new?" says Bandoh, 26, who is paying for school with loans and a part-time job in the campus bookstore.

The tuition plan, which has strong support from Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida's university presidents, would radically alter the way more than 150,000 students pay for classes at the state's 11 public universities.

Schools would charge all full-time students for five classes - typically 15 credit hours - regardless of how many credit hours they take.

That would be bad news for most Florida students, who take an average of about 12 credit hours a semester.

The "block tuition" idea, popular in many states, is part of a national movement to rid colleges and universities of procrastinating students who spend more than four years earning their degree.

"I don't know exactly what it is, but getting out in four years doesn't seem to be the norm," says Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida. "There doesn't seem to be a lot of angst about it. This is one way to help them along."

The benefit for universities is obvious: They get additional tuition money, and a way to more quickly open their increasingly precious seats.

But for most students, the change would amount to a stealth tuition increase. And it's not just full-time students who are in the state's cross hairs. Also under consideration are proposals that would charge higher out-of-state tuition rates to students not seeking degrees or taking more classes than they need.

Many professors say universities are acting too much like factories, churning students out like so many widgets on an assembly line.

"I don't think we should necessarily be obsessed about pushing students through," says Elizabeth Bird, an anthropology professor and faculty senate president at the University of South Florida. "It's not a failure for those students who take six years."

* * *

A few generations ago, it was unusual for a student to take more than four years to graduate. But the norm now is five or six years.

One reason is the higher percentage of students who must work to pay for tuition, which has gone up eight years in a row. Another reason: the willingness of today's students to change majors or explore other subjects.

Procrastinating students aren't winning any points with Florida officials. Not when taxpayers are picking up about 75 percent of their college tab.

"They are taking more time than necessary," says Rep. David Simmons, a Longwood Republican who oversees education spending for the House. "And we're all paying for it."

Only 33 percent of students at Florida universities graduate in four years. The rate of students that graduated within six years, a more commonly used statistic in higher education, is 62 percent.

Those numbers are in line with other states. In 1993, 31 percent of American students earned degrees after four years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That was down from 45 percent in 1977.

University administrators say those percentages won't go up until Florida students start averaging at least five classes, or 15 credit hours, a semester. That would get them out in four years.

Sabreen Hussain, 25, a USF senior majoring in biomedical sciences, tried a five-course semester in the spring of 2001. It wasn't pleasant, she says.

She needed more time to study. And she sees no point in racing through her college years.

"I'm not driven," says Hussain, who is contemplating adding a minor that would prolong her education another semester. "I'm still chilling."

Machen, UF's new president, says something needs to change. His school gets 25,000 applications each year for about 5,000 freshmen seats. If UF could increase its four-year graduation rate from 52 percent to 75 percent, he says, the school would have 1,500 more seats available.

But some faculty members detest the new push to get students out of school. They think administrators care more about money than providing students with the best possible education.

It's especially tough on schools such as USF and Florida International University, which have a large number of nontraditional students who work and study.

"There are a lot of students who shouldn't take 15 hours. They're not strong enough," says Howard Rock, an FIU professor who sits on the Board of Governors, which oversees higher education in Florida. "There are a lot of students where five courses would overwhelm them."

Despite faculty protests, some Florida universities have adopted their own techniques in recent years to combat the problem.

UF set the standard, using a combination of increased monitoring and student advising along with strong penalties. Students who insist on taking courses that slow their path to graduation can be forced to change majors or be expelled, regardless of grades.

Florida State University adopted its own version of the program this fall. The University of Central Florida in Orlando plans to follow suit next year.

"A lot of us are looking back on what we remember when we were in school," says UCF president John Hitt. "It is clear it has slipped way beyond four years."

* * *

Florida used to charge students block tuition. But that changed in the mid 1970s, when the state decided full- and part-time students should pay the same way - by credit hour. At the time, full-time students complained the change would slow their graduation rate.

There have been many discussions since then about whether to bring back block tuition. Bush proposed the idea again in January. This time it may happen.

"It would help me," says Joi Harris, 24, a USF anthropology major taking 17 credit hours. "But I still don't think it's fair. Not everyone can do it."

While the change would be a windfall for universities, it may actually increase the state's costs. The state pays 75 percent to 100 percent of the tuition for more than 100,000 students who have Bright Futures merit scholarships.

Legislators who have rejected curbing the escalating cost of Bright Futures in the past say they will support block tuition only if it doesn't hurt the scholarships.

"I don't have a problem with the overall goal, but the devil is in the details," says Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

The Florida Student Association, a student lobbying group, acknowledges the popularity of block tuition. But its leaders have spoken to the governor's staff about trying to find other solutions for procrastinating students.

Clayton Solomon, FIU's student body president and a member of the Board of Governors, says he favors a tuition break for students taking at least 18 credit hours. But he is concerned about the impact on the many students who take less than 15, especially if the change comes on top of yet another annual tuition increase.

USF student Emily Henderson, 27, who is taking 15 credit hours this semester for the first time, says the price increase would keep her pushing hard.

"Why waste money?" she says.

Other students worry that taking more than four classes could cause their grades to slip, which would forfeit their scholarships.

"Four is plenty. It's a lot of work," says Evan Kaylin, 18, a USF freshmen from Fort Lauderdale. "I'll probably never take 18 credits, or even 15."

* * *

Block tuition isn't the only proposal that would squeeze student pocketbooks. Also on the legislative agenda are measures that would charge out-of-state tuition to students not seeking degrees - including teachers working on recertification - and to those who take more credit hours than they need to graduate.

That means a non-degree-seeking student who pays less than $300 for a class now would pay more than $1,500 for that class next year.

Some faculty senates and university boards of trustees have written letters of opposition.

"It's an unqualified disaster," Rock says. "It will be destructive to higher education in Florida."

Critics dub the policies "intellectual curiousity taxes" and say they contradict the ideal of a well-rounded education. They say students should be able to change majors - which happens an average of 2.5 times - add a second major or explore other subjects.

"We are here to offer opportunities to explore," says USF provost Renu Khator. "It's good that students do that."

But officials of cash-strapped states such as Florida say they must find a way to make room for more students.

"We want to make sure we're as efficient and as effective as possible," says Rep. David Mealor, a Lake Mary Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Higher Education. "There's nothing wrong with exploration. We just don't think the state ought to underwrite their exploration."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Anita Kumar covers higher education and can be reached at kumar@sptimes.com or 727 893-8472.

[Last modified March 4, 2004, 01:15:01]


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