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A pinched view on universities

Published June 7, 2007


In applying his populist litmus test to university tuition, Gov. Charlie Crist somehow has managed to index the quality of higher education to the price of gasoline. If this is to be his vision for Florida universities, they may as well begin petitioning OPEC for relief. Crist describes as "doomed" a bill that allows the state's top three research universities to charge higher tuitions, and he already has vetoed a 5 percent across-the-board tuition increase for this fall. Yet he has offered no hint of his own vision for these vital and financially ailing institutions. His only insight, to date, is a haltingly shallow assessment of Floridians' cost of living.

"I feel for our students, " he told reporters after the tuition veto, "and I feel for their families. They're paying higher insurance rates, they're paying higher property taxes, they're paying higher gas prices. I don't think it's right to make them pay higher tuition, too."

Does the governor's analysis not allow for the fact that tuition rates - unlike insurance or taxes or gasoline - are actually low? Does it not matter, in his commiseration formula, that the University of Florida's tuition is by far the lowest of any flagship in the nation? That even if the tuition was allowed to increase by 40 percent over a period of at least three years that it likely would still be the lowest in the nation?

By most any measure, Florida universities are overwhelmed and undersupported. They have the highest student/faculty ratio and the lowest cost per degree in the nation. Five are among the nation's 30 largest universities, and the amount of classroom space per student is half the national average.

Over the past three years alone, the Legislature has come up $119-million short just in its obligation to meet enrollment growth. Crist's veto of the 5 percent tuition increase robs universities of $19-million this fall that would have absorbed the cost of 3, 167 more students. Yet the universities are expected to keep accepting more and more students anyway.

In January, a consultant looked at long-range university plans and made a familiar observation: "Without increased flexibility with tuition for the State University System institutions ... or major new state investments, no blueprint or long-term master plan can possibly begin to even take shape."

What, then, is the governor's own blueprint for universities? If his sole interest is in low tuition, previous governors and Legislatures have beat him to the punch. If he wants to educate an additional 50, 000 students over the next five years and push the research universities to national prominence, he will need to broaden his political calculus.

Universities are not gasoline pumps, and their cut-rate tuitions are not soaring insurance premiums. The challenge that public universities face in Florida, rather, is from a historic lack of investment. If Gov. Crist can't understand the difference, he could preside over their decline.

[Last modified June 6, 2007, 21:37:58]

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