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Crist allows higher tuition
Unless other funds surface, USF, FSU and UF could charge more than other schools.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published June 28, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - In a surprising about-face, Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday signed legislation allowing Florida's three top research universities to charge more in undergraduate tuition than their state peers.
But his endorsement came only after leaders of the University of Florida, Florida State and the University of South Florida agreed to delay the hike until fall 2008. By then, Crist hopes lawmakers will pump enough additional money into the universities that the higher tuition won't be necessary.
Some lawmakers were skeptical that such money can be found. Nonetheless, Crist's announcement was welcome news for the three institutions' presidents, who emerged visibly stunned from a Wednesday morning meeting with the governor, a 1978 FSU graduate.
Crist's change of heart follows a steady stream of newspaper editorials and university lobbying in favor of the tiered tuition plan, and it represents a dramatic shift in the state's approach to higher education funding.
For the first time, university presidents say, their tuition will reflect their different teaching missions, a model that has proven successful in states like North Carolina and California.
"It's incredibly important for the future of Florida that we have the very best universities that we can provide for the people of our state, " Crist said after his meeting with leaders of Florida's 11 public universities.
The so-called "differential tuition" bill allows the University of South Florida to charge in-state undergraduates as much as 30 percent more than the base tuition rate, as long as tuition doesn't increase more than 15 percent in any one year. The University of Florida and Florida State could charge incoming Florida undergraduates up to 40 percent above the base rate.
The base tuition rate is currently $73.71 per credit hour or $2, 211 annually for a full-time student taking 30 credits a year. Under the new law, students could be charged as much as $84.76 per credit hour next year or about $2, 543 a year for a full-time student.
Could gain millions
The changes would not apply to current undergraduates, only those who come in once the plan is in place. Families who already have contracts under the Florida Prepaid Program would be exempt, and Prepaid can start selling new contracts to cover the higher tuition for future families. Financially needy students won't have to pay the higher rate.
But recipients of the state's 10-year-old Bright Futures scholarship program won't be exempt; they would have to pay the difference between the base tuition and the higher rate.
If universities were to charge the maximum they can under the plan, they each stand to bring in between $18-million and $26.5-million more in annual revenue once the plan is fully implemented, meaning all students are paying the fee hike.
For months, Crist has opposed higher tuition. He called proposals for the differential tuition and for an across-the-board tuition hike unfair "burdens" for cash-strapped families who already struggle to afford homeowners' insurance and property taxes.
Earlier this month, he vetoed a 5 percent across-the-board tuition increase for undergraduates. University presidents had expected him to do the same with the differential tuition bill.
Crist said he met with the presidents to explain the statewide tuition veto and to gauge all of the leaders' thoughts on the differential tuition for UF, FSU and USF.
"All of the universities do support the tuition bill. We really do hope you sign it and allow it to become law, " University of Central Florida president John Hitt told Crist.
The bill could pave the way for more tuition hikes at other universities, because as colleges like UCF add more research programs, doctoral degrees and increase graduation rates, they, too, could reach the "research" tier and enact a fee hike.
"I'm so appreciative that the governor is going to allow the differential bill to go through, " said USF president Judy Genshaft. "It means a lot, because we will be putting money back into undergraduate education to help undergraduate students graduate in a more timely fashion."
USF student body president Barclay Harless said he hopes the additional money will enable USF to hire more, "higher-caliber" professors.
He said a chief complaint among students is that they have trouble getting into classes they need, and when they do they aren't challenged.
Looking for more
Still, Crist said he hopes the Legislature can pump more money into the three universities so that the higher rates are unnecessary. The three presidents agreed to work with Gov. Crist and lawmakers this fall.
Some legislators said they're doubtful the Legislature will have the appetite or resources to come up with such funding. In the first year, the three colleges stand to gain over $5-million altogether in additional revenue. By the fourth year, they could bring in an extra $70-million.
"I don't know where we'd get the money, " said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, an Ormond Beach Republican. Lynn, who runs the Higher Education budget committee, said money will be especially tight if voters approve a constitutional amendment in January giving homesteaded taxpayers a property tax break.
That change could cut close to $2-billion a year from public school funding, and lawmakers have promised to make up the difference.
Times staffer Nadia Mundy contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The three universities stand to generate millions more in additional revenue as the tiered tuition for in-state undergraduates is fully implemented: