Plan at UF may grow

Published April 25, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - The University of Florida's controversial request to charge its undergraduates an extra $500 each semester has morphed into a push for a tiered system that would boost tuition not only at UF, but also at the University of South Florida and Florida State University.

Under a bipartisan proposal that has House support and is headed to the Senate floor, the three schools could charge undergraduates between 30 and 40 percent more than the base tuition rate now charged by all 11 state universities.

In-state undergraduates currently pay $73.71 per credit hour - or about $2,210 for two semesters - whether they attend a nationally recognized flagship like UF or a small institution like New College of Florida.

Florida's in-state undergraduate tuition ranks at the bottom compared with other states. In a recent survey of 75 flagship public institutions' tuition and fees, FSU fell to No. 74 and UF was ranked No. 75.

Yet year after year, lawmakers resist universities' requests for higher tuition. They typically approve hikes of just a few percentage points each year.

When a final Senate committee cleared the bill Tuesday, lawmakers turned a significant corner in addressing universities' budget needs, said state university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg.

Even though the governor has vowed to veto anything that raises the cost of attending college in Florida, passage in both chambers would be a landmark in the state's approach to higher education.

"There is the recognition here that the universities have been starved for too long," Rosenberg said. "There's a recognition for the fact that we have to move past a one-size-fits-all system."

The proposal approved Tuesday by Sen. Evelyn Lynn's higher education appropriations committee would allow the boards of trustees at USF, FSU and UF to establish differential tuition starting in the fall.

UF and FSU could charge up to 40 percent more than the base state tuition, as long as tuition increased no more than 15 percent from one year to the next. USF could charge 30 percent more.

According to an early estimate by the board that oversees state universities, UF and FSU could each raise an additional $1.3-million the first year of differential tuition, and USF could generate about $1-million. That's assuming that base tuition goes up statewide by 5 percent, as proposed by the House and Senate, and that the three universities charge an additional 10 percent more in differential tuition.

By 2010, UF and FSU could bring in an additional $25-million, and USF could see an additional $20-million.

"Different universities have different missions," said Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. "For those doing extensive research, which can help the state economy by the way, we're saying, 'You might have to pay more.' It's the beginning of a very sound educational policy."

The differential tuition would apply to incoming undergraduates starting in the fall, not students currently enrolled. Families who already have contracts under the Florida Prepaid Scholarship Program would be exempt, and Florida Prepaid could sell new contracts that cover the differential tuition.

The popular Bright Futures state scholarship program would not cover the extra tuition.

The current House version of the bill would allow only UF to charge undergraduates more. But Rep. David Mealor, R-Lake Mary, vowed Tuesday to work with fellow representatives to match his chamber's bill to the Senate's. He would even like to build in provisions that give the University of Central Florida, Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University the opportunity to eventually charge their students more.

"It sends a message that if you reach a certain threshold as a university, we're willing to reward that performance," Mealor said.

This all began earlier this year, with a bill by Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, to allow UF to charge incoming undergraduates an extra $500 a semester, starting this coming fall. UF president Bernie Machen estimated it would ultimately raise $37-million a year.

He would use the money to hire an additional 200 instructors and 100 academic advisers as part of his bid to vault UF into the nation's top 10 list of public institutions. He said UF will never join the ranks of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill without smaller classes and more varied course offerings.

Machen shook hands with senators after the 3-1 committee vote, which Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, opposed.

"This is a great bill," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate. "I just hope it doesn't get vetoed."

The latest version of the bill could be even less amenable to Gov. Charlie Crist than the original because it would affect far more students.

"Wow, the increases have just bloomed, haven't they?" he said, shaking his head. "Well, I don't like them."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 850 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.