tampabay.com

House pushes tuition increase

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published May 3, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The House on Wednesday followed the Senate's lead, approving a dramatically different tuition structure that allows the University of Florida, the University of South Florida, and Florida State University to charge their undergraduates up to 40 percent more.

The top three research universities could generate tens of millions more in revenue from the so-called "differential tuition, " a model used in several states including North Carolina, Texas and California.

"Our universities have different missions, " said Democratic Rep. Bill Heller, a former USF St. Petersburg professor and dean. "This bill recognizes those different missions. Differentiated tuition should have been here a long time ago."

But supporters can't celebrate yet. The 79-37 House vote, with mostly Democrats opposed, paves the way for a likely showdown with Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.

A 1978 FSU graduate, Crist has said since he took office that he doesn't want to raise the cost of a public college education in Florida.

Asked Wednesday if he will veto the bill, he said "a strong maybe."

"I think I've been fairly consistent in expressing my displeasure with the notion of higher tuition or fees on students at our universities, " he said. "I still feel that way. Nothing's changed in my heart."

He told the St. Petersburg Times earlier this week that he might be more supportive of the legislation if it required that students at the three universities vote to establish the higher tuition. He said a student referendum would "mitigate" his opposition.

The bill doesn't require a referendum. It leaves the tuition hike up to the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's 11 public institutions, and the three universities' boards of trustees. But a student sits on the Board of Governors, and each trustee board has a student representative. Moreover, student leaders across the state have come out in support of the differential tuition.

"I'm not sure what happens next, " UF president Bernie Machen said Wednesday. "I just hope the governor gives it some careful thought."

USF president Judy Genshaft said the tuition will "assure our undergraduate students of access to a world-class education, " and will pay "great dividends for our graduates, students, faculty and community at large."

Under the legislation approved Wednesday, UF and FSU, starting in fall 2007, 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. The universities were selected based on a number of factors including annual research activity, the number of doctoral degrees awarded and four-year graduation rates.

The differential tuition would apply to incoming undergraduates starting this fall, not students currently enrolled.

Families who already have contracts under the Florida Prepaid Scholarship Program would be exempt, and starting this fall 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 Senate approved the tuition plan last week by a 28-10 bipartisan vote, with Tampa Bay Sens. Ronda Storms, Arthenia Joyner, Charlie Justice and Victor Crist among those opposed.

In the House, it was mostly Democrats opposed, including many minority lawmakers.

"If we want to pay for future instructors and improvements, we ought to put it in our budget, " said Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach. "We shouldn't do it on the backs of students."

Florida's in-state undergraduate tuition is now among the lowest in the country.

Students pay $73.71 per credit hour, or about $2, 210 for two semesters -- not including fees for athletics and other programs - whether they attend a nationally recognized flagship like UF or a small institution like New College of Florida.

In a recent USA Today survey of 75 flagship public institutions' tuition and fees, FSU ranked No. 74. UF ranked dead last.

Yet year after year, lawmakers have resisted universities' requests for significant tuition increases. They typically approve hikes of just a few percentage points each year. Lawmakers' support for the differentiated model marks a dramatic shift in the state's approach to public universities, and it's a model that has proven successful in states like North Carolina, home to UNC-Chapel Hill.

The original tuition proposal would have established a $500 per semester fee only for UF, the sole Florida university in the prestigious, invitation-only Association of American Universities.

Machen wants to vault UF into the top 10 list of public U.S. universities but says he can't get there without hiring more faculty and student advisers. UF's student-instructor ratio is 21:1, the highest it has ever been.

UF and FSU stand to raise an additional $1.3-million the first year of differential tuition, and USF could generate about $1-million.

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

"This is an attempt to put us on a level playing field with some of the best institutions in the country, " said Republican Rep. David Mealor, a University of Central Florida professor. "Your vote today will help us go from a good system to a great system."

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Justin George and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.