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Universities consider how to trim millions
Budget crunch may pose enrollment freeze.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published July 9, 2007
[Times photo: JOHN PENDYGRAFT]
TAMPA - The budgets of Florida's 11 public universities are poised to shrink by tens of millions of dollars because of statewide revenue shortfalls, and the proof is on the fall schedule of the University of South Florida's second-in-command.
Come August, provost Renu Khator will spend her afternoons teaching a beginner's-level Hindi class.
Her return to the lecture hall is one of many cost-cutting and money-stretching strategies being adopted by Florida's colleges, whose budgets could be axed by as much as 10 percent because of an estimated $1-billion shortfall in state tax revenues for the budget year that began July 1.
Tuesday, state university system leaders meet in Orlando to talk about long-term, broad strategies for coping with the money problem.
The talk won't be pretty.
Several university system officials say they expect the Board of Governors to institute a statewide enrollment freeze or at least a significant slowdown. A state hiring freeze isn't out of the question either.
"I just don't see how we can get around it," said Dan Holsenbeck, vice president for university relations at the University of Central Florida, the state's fastest-growing university.
That means students will find it harder to get into their colleges of choice, and those who do get in will continue to find crowded classes and inadequate course offerings.
Already, colleges like USF are planning major changes.
"We're going to put the students first. That's very important," Khator said. "We're going to look for efficiencies in every area first. But yes, at a certain point it can begin to cut into your academic core."
To trim the $71-billion budget he signed just weeks earlier, Gov. Charlie Crist last month asked state agencies, including universities, to plan for cuts of between 4 percent and 10 percent from their recurring general revenue -- dollars they get each year.
Loss of millions
For USF, that means a loss of between $15-million and $36-million. The University of Florida's budget would shrink by about $30-million under the minimum 4 percent cut. And UCF could lose as much as $28-million. Other universities face similar cuts. The figures don't include the $19-million in potential revenue state universities lost with Crist's recent veto of a 5 percent increase in in-state undergraduate tuition.
Holsenbeck said UCF officials haven't decided on cost-cutting measures because they're waiting to see what the Board of Governors decides Tuesday. And UCF administrators, like other Florida college leaders, won't know until next month exactly how much their budgets are shrinking.
Crist wants to see agencies' cost-cutting plans by Aug. 8, when the state will have a better idea of the revenue shortfall. Last month, officials projected it will be as much as $1-billion.
"We're in for a very, very difficult period," said Chancellor Mark Rosenberg. "We are struggling with, essentially, maintaining quality."
Already, the student-teacher ratios in Florida's colleges are among the highest in the country. And universities' cost-cutting measures will only aggravate the problems.
UF announced last week it will freeze hiring.
"It's really going to be difficult," said UF president Bernie Machen. "Everybody's going to have to suffer a little bit."
Florida State University, meanwhile, is freezing enrollment.
USF's plan for cutting its budget by 10 percent includes eliminating programs and services that are "not mission critical," offering more weekend classes and three-day-a-week courses, and requiring that graduate classes enroll at least eight students and undergraduate classes at least 25. New enrollment would be frozen at the fall 2006 level, and administrators should be ready to teach at least one course per semester, Khator said.
Fear of hiring freeze
USF student body president Barclay Harless, 22, struggled as a freshman and sophomore to get into core classes he needed for his history and political science degrees. He fears a hiring freeze would only make the problem worse for future students.
"That means larger classes, less course offerings," he said.
The state university system was in a precarious financial situation even before the governor's call for cuts, thanks to a double whammy of rock-bottom in-state undergraduate tuition and state funding that doesn't cover the cost of all students enrolled.
Florida's undergraduate tuition for state residents, about $2,200 a year not including fees, is among the nation's lowest. And there are more than 5,500 students in the system who are not covered by state funding.
The governor recently approved a bill that will allow UF, FSU and USF to charge up to 40 percent more in undergraduate in-state tuition than the eight other universities. But that won't kick in until fall 2008, and only gradually. Rosenberg said Florida universities can't afford to tread water much longer.
"The competitive playing field is not going to wait for Florida to figure out how to fund our state university system."
Florida's public universities are addressing budget deficits with a variety of cost-saving measures that will affect students and faculty. Here's what some of the largest colleges are doing and considering:
UF: Freeze all campus hiring; encourage direct-support groups like the University Athletic Association to donate toward academic costs; consider boosting the credit hours students take each semester to move them through faster.
FSU: Freeze enrollment; cut back library and computer lab hours; raise fees on services like transcript copies; put off some maintenance and repairs.
USF: Administrators are considering capping enrollment at the Tampa campus; freezing hiring and "encouraging" retirements; reducing some library and computer lab hours; eliminating little-used programs and services; increasing weekend classes; and offering shortened, intense semesters.
UCF: No decisions yet, but officials are considering a freeze or slowdown in hiring and enrollment.