A push for more need-based aid programs

By FRANK HARRISON Special to the Times
Published May 14, 2007

"You're supporting what?"

This is the reaction I often receive when people learn that, as the former representative for all students enrolled in the State University System, I am supporting the differential tuition proposal that was passed by the Florida Legislature. The reaction by students and parents is often negative, because they worry that they will be unable to afford such an increase and they believe the governor and the Legislature should allocate more state money to higher education.

Yet students and parents also would be willing to pay more because of the recognized need for Florida's universities to deliver a world-class, globally competitive education. They fully understand students will be competing in a global marketplace, in which other countries - and other states - are placing a greater emphasis on higher education.

Florida has only one Top 50/AAU university. There are nine in California; seven in New York; four in Pennsylvania; three each in Illinois, Massachusetts and Texas; and two each in eight other states. For Florida to compete successfully nationally and globally, our universities and graduates must be competitive. Top-tier universities are also magnets for recruiting and retaining the best and brightest students; without them, Florida will experience a "brain drain, " undermining economic success.

This need for competitiveness has been voiced by diverse groups, ranging from educational panels such as the Florida Board of Governors to business-focused elites such as the Florida Council of 100. There also is the collective voice of the students represented in the Florida Student Association .

Moreover, the question of affordability becomes moot when one realizes that higher education in our state already is unaffordable for students from modest financial backgrounds. Florida routinely receives an F rating in affordability from national groups because it lacks substantial need-based financial aid programs. Affordability should be defined as the capacity of the poorest in a society to finance an education - not the "sticker price" of tuition itself.

The cost to attend college for the poorest 40 percent in the state is approximately 40 percent of annual family income - and that's after adjusting for financial aid they receive. Because 75 percent of the cost of attending college is comprised of the cost of living (room and board, etc.) and the merit-based programs such as Florida Bright Futures only account for the remaining 25 percent (tuition and fees), education in our state remains unaffordable for too many.

The problem of affordability should be confronted through aggressive need-based aid programs, most of which were ignored or level-funded in this year's session. The University of South Florida, the University of Florida and Florida State University are to be applauded for stepping forward and committing to cover the differential tuition costs of students receiving the Florida public student assistance grant.

It is true that a greater investment from the governor and Legislature is necessary to ensure universities provide a quality education. But it is equally true that students must share the financial responsibility. The Florida Student Association has operated on a mantra of "shared responsibility and shared decisionmaking." The proposed differential tuition, which will have no appreciable impact on affordability, should be considered in that light.

The recent history of funding for our State University System could be characterized as finger-pointing between students and state groups over whose job it is to improve the quality of our education system. With Florida's tuition the lowest in the United States, students and the state have a shared responsibility to "ante up."

Until all parties agree to chip in, this state will continue to express its champagne taste while operating on a beer budget. Gov. Charlie Crist should add his support to efforts of the universities and the Legislature by signing into law the differential tuition legislation.

Frank Harrison is the outgoing student government president at the University of South Florida and a former member of the USF Board of Trustees and the state Board of Governors.