tampabay.com

Think you'll get in-state tuition? Don't be so sure

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published June 19, 2006


GAINESVILLE - Ellysa Varner was born in Gainesville and has lived her entire life there, so it came as a surprise when Santa Fe Community College officials told her she wasn't a Florida resident.

Varner, 19, is among a handful of peculiar residency cases SFCC and the University of Florida see each year. Under state regulations, lifelong Florida residents can lose residency status for tuition purposes if their parents move out of state, even in cases where the student is working and paying taxes in Florida.

"I understand the situation and it's a tough one, but I have not seen any leeway on this," said Lynn Sullivan, college registrar at SFCC.

Varner's father, who worked as an educator in Gainesville for 25 years, moved to Maryland in early 2005 to take a job at Goddard Space Flight Center. He said he was unaware that moving to Maryland and listing Varner as a dependent on his tax return could lead to a 271 percent spike in her tuition. To take the 12 credit hours she needs next year to graduate, Varner's tuition will be $2,817, up from $760.

"It just seemed odd that somebody who spent their whole life in Florida is no longer a Floridian," said Rick Varner, the student's father.

Varner may have reasonable grounds to appeal for in-state tuition before SFCC's residency committee, Sullivan said, but the state's statutory language doesn't bode well for her case. Even if she wasn't listed as a dependent on her father's tax return, Varner would still be in a bind. In order to be classified as an independent, which would grant Varner in-state tuition, she would have to prove that she could afford to pay for 50 percent of the cost of attending college, according to SFCC's application of state regulations.

"We hear about (these cases) a few times a year," said Rick Regan, UF's assistant registrar. "It's unfortunate. It's sad that that happens."

It's not likely going to get any easier to establish residency in Florida, even for Floridians. At the behest of lawmakers, colleges and universities have become increasingly guarded in the granting of residency status.

The state's comparatively low in-state tuition rates and scholarship opportunities for Floridians constitute a significant taxpayer burden that lawmakers hope to keep at bay, said Sara Hamon, an expert on residency issues with the state Department of Education.

"(Residency) has received constant attention over the years, and the pressure we're getting is to be more stringent," Hamon said.

In 2005, lawmakers approved several notable changes to statutes related to residency, including a requirement that students furnish tax returns to indicate whether they are financially independent. Before that, some colleges and universities weren't verifying student income through tax returns in residency cases, according to a state-sponsored report on the issue.

The report, produced by the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, suggested that the state could greatly increase revenues if it cracked down on residency.

An additional $28.2-million in new tuition money could be brought in every year if no students were reclassified from nonresident to resident status, the report stated.

The report, "Non-residents Qualify Too Easily for Much Lower Resident Tuition Rates," described the application of residency statutes as sporadic. It noted that different colleges and universities apply different standards for granting residency, indicating a lack of standardization in the system and confusion about which students merit residency status.

Even after changes were made by the Legislature in response to the report, institutions still appear to differ in their interpretation of the residency statute. SFCC uses a different mathematical criterion than UF, for instance, when calculating whether a student is financially independent.

David Armstrong, Florida's chancellor of Community Colleges & Workforce Education, said the residency system could be improved but isn't broken - even if some Florida natives wind up paying out-of-state rates.

"It's never perfect, and there's always some students who get into difficult situations," he said.

That's cold comfort for Varner, who says she'll suck it up and pay out-of-state tuition even though she was born in a Gainesville hospital.

"I want to finish college altogether," said Varner, who is interested in a career in photojournalism. "I don't want to not go to college just because my parents moved."