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Politics

Crist, legislators oppose $1,000-a-year fee at UF

The proposed charge conflicts with the governor's tuition freeze.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VANSICKLER
Published February 9, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - University of Florida president Bernie Machen's proposal to charge undergraduate students an extra $500 per semester is already in trouble with Republicans, Democrats and a new governor intent on leaving Florida's rock-bottom tuition right where it is.

On Thursday, as some legislators wore orange and blue ties to celebrate the national championship UF football team's strong recruitment signing day, one of Gov. Charlie Crist's policy advisers told a group of senators that Crist will not support the UF fee.

Echoing that sentiment were a few powerful lawmakers.

"I'm not very optimistic about it passing," said state Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

The proposed fee would raise the annual cost of attending UF from about $3,200 a year, not including room and board, to $4,200.

The chancellor of Florida's 11 public universities supports the fee, as does the board that oversees those universities.

But Scott Kittel, Crist's education adviser, said Crist considers it a form of tuition. His proposed $3.5-billion budget for state universities next year freezes tuition for in-state undergraduates because he wants to help families afford college.

Machen was traveling Thursday and could not be reached.

He wants to vault UF into the elite top 10 class of public universities, a group that now includes institutions such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He says the fee would improve the quality of UF's undergraduate programs by generating about $36-million each year - enough to hire 200 additional professors and 100 academic counselors.

UF would start charging the fee to students, including transfers, who enroll this fall for the first time. Those students, and the ones who follow, would pay the fee every semester.

This week, UF lobbyists visited with legislators, handing out editorials in favor of the fee and surveys showing that UF's tuition is cheaper than the nation's 74 other flagship institutions.

But the governor and key legislators from both parties so far aren't biting. The bill had no sponsors as of Thursday afternoon.

"This is a way to get around the tuition freeze," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who said he regularly receives e-mails from parents in his district opposing the fee.

"It's going to be very difficult for me to vote for something like that."

Democrats are just as skeptical.

"It's an end run around the lack of a tuition increase," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House Democratic leader.

Machen does not plan to charge the fee to students who qualify for need-based aid, and he is not proposing the fee be covered by Bright Futures, the state's popular merit-based scholarship program that covers full or partial tuition for Florida high school graduates who meet certain SAT and grade point standards.

Still, there are big questions about how the fee would affect families signed up for the Florida Prepaid Tuition Program, which allows them to lock in the cost of tuition, housing and other fees years before their children enroll in a Florida public institution.

Gelber, a proud graduate of the UF law school, said charging an extra $1,000 per year would "break the deal" with the nearly 1-million Florida families in the prepaid program who believed they were paying upfront for their children's college expenses.

If the fee were to survive, the prepaid board would want the Legislature to exempt families already enrolled in the Prepaid College Plan.

The board also wants the authority to alter its prepaid plan so families enrolling in the future can include the $500-per-semester fee in their payment contracts.

King said Machen's proposal will no doubt get support from some legislators who are "University of Florida folk, or from some Florida State folk who think if UF gets it, FSU won't be far behind."

King, an FSU graduate, said he isn't comfortable with the UF fee because it gives one university privilege over the others.

"I'm not so sure that in a state that has 11 universities, I want to say, 'Gosh you're the flagship, so you deserve to charge more because you're better.' I don't buy into that."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 850 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 9, 2007, 05:57:27]


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