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Board advances tuition autonomy

If approved by the Legislature, universities would have unlimited control of certain rates.

By RON MATUS
Published October 22, 2004

SARASOTA - Florida universities will have the power to set tuition as high as they want for out-of-state and graduate students, under a plan approved Thursday by the state Board of Governors.

If approved by the state Legislature, the plan would be another step toward the tuition-setting power university officials say they need to pace enrollment growth and boost academic programs.

"This is a far-sighted move," University of Florida president Bernie Machen told board members at their meeting in Sarasota.

The proposal was one of several tuition-related measures the board backed with a 10-1 vote, including far more controversial measures to charge full-time students a flat rate of 15 credit hours, no matter how many classes they take, and make them pay 25 percent more if they take more classes than needed to graduate.

Supporters, including Gov. Jeb Bush, say the so-called block tuition and excess hours plans will nudge students through the system more quickly and make room for others.

They also say it's more fair for Florida taxpayers, who pick up about 75 percent of the cost for a college student's education.

"This is student-friendly," said board member Gerri Moll.

Student leaders don't see it that way. The sole dissenting vote came from Jarrett Eady, student body president at Florida State University.

If power companies charged flat rates for utility bills, "you'd have massive insurrection in the streets," Eady said. "I think you should be charged for what you use."

The block tuition and excess hours proposals generated the most debate Thursday, but other parts of the tuition package could be more far-reaching.

Florida universities want more flexibility to raise tuition rates, which are among the lowest in the country.

With stagnant financial support from the state, they say they need to raise tuition to keep up with Florida's ballooning student population and make strides toward joining the nation's best schools.

Dick Beard, chairman of the University of South Florida board of trustees, said if given the power the school would probably raise tuition immediately.

"It needs to go up," he said, echoing other university officials who say a college education in Florida is a bargain.

The Legislature has resisted tuition increases but in recent years has allowed universities to level double-digit increases on out-of-state and graduate students.

Those increases would not complicate the state's popular Bright Futures scholarships and college pre-pay programs the way increases in undergraduate tuition would.

The Board of Governors has recommended tuition proposals to the Legislature in the past, only to see them stall.

The most recent versions have been tweaked, with a smaller penalty on excess hours and more flexibility for universities to set thresholds on block tuition so part-time students won't be hurt.

"We feel more comfortable that these changes will be acceptable," said board chairwoman Carolyn Roberts.

Some university presidents, however, say it's unclear how much more efficient the universities will be and whether they will end up spending more money to serve additional classes.

Block tuition "will fall on its face," said board member Castell Bryant, if some students can't get required classes because there are too many additional students in the mix.

In other developments Thursday:

University presidents continued to wrestle with measures that will tie as much as 10 percent of a school's funding to how well it performs on graduation rates, degree production and other goals.

Under a new state law, performance funding kicks in next year, but presidents bemoan the new law's emphasis on sanctions rather than incentives.

"I would submit that cutting my budget by a million dollars would not help us produce more engineers," said University of West Florida president John Cavanaugh.

Board members sharply questioned a new system for measuring student performance that they previously supported.

The idea behind "academic learning compacts" is ensuring students can communicate and think critically by the time they graduate.

But university officials say it remains unclear how those skills will be measured and whether a certification process separate from degrees will open doors for legal challenges.

Department of Education staff members concluded universities are efficiently using their classroom space, despite a drop in the number of classes offered on Fridays.

The review was prompted by lawmakers and board members who say too many classroom are left empty in evenings and on Fridays while universities swell with new students and state construction dollars shrink.

The DOE report found all 11 universities exceed state requirements that classrooms be used 40 hours a week at 60 percent capacity.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.

[Last modified October 22, 2004, 01:08:21]


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