What our universities need

Published May 8, 2007

Florida's three top research universities are being offered a lifeline to compete academically, and the Seminole in the Governor's Mansion has some soul-searching to do. Does Charlie Crist, friend of rock-bottom tuitions, want to be known for cheapness or greatness? As they relate to higher education, cheap and great are increasingly in brutal conflict. The first state budget to reach Crist's desk as governor will again play a trick on universities, paying for only a third of the new students who are expected to enroll this fall. That maneuver robs universities of $78-million that is intended merely to keep them afloat.

The backdoor budget cuts have become familiar routines, but this year the Legislature has at least offered a chance for the three costliest research universities to help themselves. Lawmakers have adopted a tuition plan, approved in both chambers and supported by the House speaker and Senate president, that would let those institutions charge more for what they have to offer.

Differential tuition is standard everywhere but Florida. Charging more for high-demand, high-cost universities is simple market economics, and successful state university systems such as North Carolina's have long followed the practice.

The bill headed to the governor's desk would take modest steps toward such tuition differential. It would allow the flagship University of Florida and Florida State University to charge up to 40 percent more than other state institutions, and the University of South Florida up to 30 percent more. But, to get there, they could not increase their tuitions by more than 15 percent in any one year, and they cannot charge the higher amount to any current students.

The governor has winced at any tuition increase and told reporters last week a veto was a "strong maybe." But the governor owes these universities, including his alma mater and his hometown campus, the chance to make their case.

This is not about champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

By every available measure, Florida shoehorns in the students and starves the universities. The campuses are so crammed with students that the state now runs five of the nation's 30 largest universities and the available classroom space per student is half the national average. Collectively, the universities have the highest student/faculty ratio and the lowest instructional cost per degree in the nation.

The tuition is part of the problem. Crist is right to take pride in the low tuitions that are offered at state universities. But there is a difference between low and subterranean.

Florida's tuition is so low that ranking dead last in the nation only begins to describe it. This past academic year, Florida could have doubled its tuition and it still would have been below the national average, $6, 608, for flagship universities. It could have raised the entire proposed 40 percent tuition differential retroactively, in one year, and still ranked only 44th among the 50 states.

The bottom line: The higher tuitions proposed for UF, FSU and USF would remain among the lowest, if not the lowest, in the nation. How could the governor find that objectionable?

This tuition plan is really just aimed toward common sense. As Rep. Bill Heller, former USF St. Petersburg campus dean, puts it: "Our universities have different missions. This bill recognizes those different missions. Differentiated tuition should have been here a long time ago."

The money that would come from this extra tuition would be used, as a matter of law, "solely for improving the quality of direct undergraduate instruction and support services." Students would see the difference through more course offerings, smaller classes and more academic counselors. That's one reason the student body presidents at UF and USF already have supported the idea.

The tuition differential is by no means a solution to the financial straits faced by Florida universities, and that day of reckoning is coming. But this plan at least attempts to lift the bar in ways that might eventually help them all.

Universities, particularly those in the upper academic tier, are judged less by the size of their tuition than the quality of their education. That's where Gov. Crist can make his mark. With his signature, he can begin to push universities toward greatness.