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TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist, the self-dubbed "People's Governor," opposes higher university tuition because he says he wants to keep college affordable for the families he represents.
Leading lawmakers like Senate President Ken Pruitt say tuition should remain low enough that all residents here have a chance to earn a degree.
But a majority of Floridians recently polled by the St. Petersburg Times say the 11 public universities should charge more in tuition at their financially strained institutions.
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said they believe public universities here should raise tuition in response to shrinking operating budgets. That includes 44 percent of respondents who said schools should simultaneously grow enrollment, and 14 percent who favor freezing enrollment or reducing it, as the universities have been doing since summer.
"I think students and families are willing to pay more because they see the strain on universities," said Florida State University student body president Joe O'Shea of Dunedin. "When you start seeing them cut academic advisers or classes, I mean, that's critical."
Less than one-third of poll participants said tuition should remain where it is - the cheapest in the country.
The Times' survey also asked Floridians to rate the way the state's institutions are educating students. Sixteen percent rated them as "excellent," 50 percent rated them "good," 18 percent "only fair," 4 percent "poor" and 13 percent responded "don't know."
The Times education survey was administered to 702 registered voters Feb. 6-10 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The survey did not ask participants how much universities should increase tuition or who should decide to raise it - a significant nuance that gets at the heart of current political wrangling between lawmakers and state university system leaders.
The board constitutionally charged with overseeing the university system is fighting with the Legislature over tuition-setting power, with both sides insisting the authority is theirs.
"The issue isn't so much the amount of tuition increase," said longtime Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "It's a question of who has the authority."
The Board of Governors wants a Leon County judge to decide once and for all, yet Senate and House leaders upped the ante this week by announcing they'll pursue a proposed constitutional amendment to "clarify" the Board of Governors' powers.
Translation: Curtail the board's reach, and cement in the Constitution that only the Legislature sets tuition rates.
The Legislature hasn't been opposed outright to tuition increases. Members just resist big ones, the double-digit kind that force them to set aside more money for the merit-based Bright Futures Scholarship program.
The politically untouchable program covers tuition for in-state undergraduates who meet GPA and SAT requirements, so when the tuition rate goes up, so does the state's tab.
Until this summer, the Legislature and Board of Governors had a sometimes uneasy but workable tradition of agreeing on modest annual tuition raises in the 3 to 8 percent range.
But when the Legislature proposed a 5 percent hike for this past fall, Crist initially vetoed it - effectively tipping the cart and sparking a rapid deterioration of relations between the board and leading elected officials.
Crist later allowed a 5 percent increase for spring, but by then the board was moving toward a showdown.
University leaders argue that especially with state support falling - from $14,039 per student 18 years ago to $10,728 today - they need to raise tuition so that it's at least closer to the national average of nearly $7,000.
In-state undergraduate tuition and fees are now about $3,600, the lowest in the nation.
In the Times survey, support for higher tuition was equal among college graduates and those without a college degree.
But those with incomes over $50,000 were more in favor of higher tuition 57 percent than those earning less than $50,000 a year.
Eleanor Hafer, 75, of Largo, says tuition should stay low. She has already seen some of her grandchildren forgo a state college "because the tuition was too high."
"Children today have enough of an excuse not to go to college, so I don't think we should raise tuition," said Hafer, a mother of three - two UF graduates and one USF graduate.
Rep. Joyce Cusack, D-DeLand, said raising tuition significantly is not a good idea when the state's economy is flagging.
"When do people go back to school? It's when the economy is bad," she said. "Is this the right time to raise tuition? I don't think so. It's like adding fuel to the fire."