Too cheap for too long

Published April 26, 2007

State appropriations bills so far offer only a third of the $120-million that public universities need next year just to keep pace with enrollment growth. Gov. Charlie Crist is dismissive of tuition increases as though they were some form of income tax. And even a proposal by the Florida Student Association to increase student fees for technology is receiving a cold legislative shoulder.

If Florida is aiming this year to lower the quality of its public universities, politicians are on the right track. Former university chancellor Charles Reed once used Latin to describe what he viewed as the state's attitude toward higher education: Humiles sumus et quoque superbi, or, "We're cheap, and we're proud of it." His motto fairly characterizes this year's effort so far.

The state's 11 public universities are being expected to teach an additional 10,585 students this fall, but lawmakers apparently think two-thirds of them can be taught for free. Though the proposed budget does allow the universities to charge each student 5 percent more in tuition, Crist has suggested he may veto that provision. Where, then, are the universities supposed to find the money? Bake sales?

The ugly truth is that universities have been forced to stuff more students into assembly-style lecture classes, reduce the variety of course offerings and recruit high-quality faculty with below-average pay. Florida universities already have the highest student/faculty ratio and the lowest instructional cost per degree in the nation.

A Senate committee on Tuesday did take a futuristic step that at least would allow the state's three top-tier research institutions - University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida - to begin the process of charging a more realistic tuition. Among the nation's public flagship universities, after all, Florida's tuition and fees are dead last. Georgia charges half-again as much, Texas more than double, Michigan three times as much.

Supporters of the differential tuition, which include university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg, were heartened by the senators' support. "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."

As that bill moves toward an uncertain future on the Senate floor and in the House, though, the governor already is criticizing it. His words reveal the disconnect between the Capitol and the campuses.

Crist, on the subject of higher tuition, told reporters: "If I'm a student, I don't feel warm and fuzzy about that."

Meanwhile, student Jason Lutin, who is external affairs director for UF student government, told senators: "All of the students at the University of Florida support this. It's in our (campus) paper every day. We are willing to pay a little extra to hire more professors and advisers."

When students are willing to sacrifice to reach their goals and politicians are not, where does that leave higher education? In his inaugural address, Crist said that "we have no higher priority, no higher calling" than to educate. But he and far too many lawmakers want to be cheap with universities at a time when trustees, university governors, the chancellor and students themselves are aiming higher.

Who are the real leaders here?