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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Scott's suggestion that universities limit tuition hikes met with confusion



Gov. Rick Scott's suggestion that the Florida Board of Governors limit universities' tuition increases to just 5 percent sent shudders through the higher education world.

"Some of these universities are wanting to raise tuition 15 percent a year," Scott told a Jacksonville radio station Tuesday morning. "I mean, name a business, can you raise your advertising rates 15 percent year after year? You can't. You wouldn't be in business. Your competition wouldn't let you."

Asked if there was a more appropriate number, Scott said: "I'm going to allow them, if they can justify it, if they can do efficiency studies and they really focus on what degrees are important, to go up to 5 percent. But I want them to really go do an analysis first, before they even think about that." 

The comment came just before Scott signed this year's budget, which includes a $300 million cut to the state university system, a 5 percent tuition increase for Florida colleges, and no base tuition increases for universities.

Under a program known as "tuition differential," universities' boards of trustees are allowed to ask the Board of Governors for increases beyond whatever the Legislature hikes, so long as the total increase does not exceed 15 percent per year. This year, with the Legislature recommending no base tuition increase for universities, it was assumed they would seek the full 15 percent increase.

Even the state budget jumps to that conclusion -- including the extra revenue from a future 15 percent hike when listing out each university's projected revenue for the year, though keeping the per-credit-hour tuition rate the same as last year.

A 15 percent hike would amount to more than $100 million for the state university system. A 5 percent hike would generate around $39 million, or just 10 percent of this year's total cut.

Uh oh.

After Scott's comments started gaining traction, the Florida Board of Governors put out a statement praising the Legislature for funding some university construction projects and for cooperation with the board in setting accountability metrics. The statement included a note for media, saying the 5 percent tuition hike Scott was talking about applied just to Florida Colleges -- not universities.

Scott's office put out its own clarification, too, reiterating that Scott's budget only includes 5 percent increases for state colleges, not universities.

Why such a hot topic?

For the past five years, universities' budgets have been cut a total of about 50 percent. They've relied heavily on tuition hikes to try to make up at least some of the difference, even while it hasn't come close to filling the gap.

This year is no different.

The $300 million slash is coming quickly down the pike. Universities are expected to cover the losses with money in their reserve funds, but they say that money, though uncommitted externally, is used for many essential functions within the institution. 

A USF spokesman said state budget cuts have left the university with few options when it comes to raising tuition. 

"Everyone at USF has been very concerned about the effect of tuition increases on students, and President Judy Genshaft has worked hard to ensure students get financial counseling to stay in college and graduate," said Michael Hoad. "Although our tuition is extremely low compared to other research universities in the nation, it's still hard on students when they're trying to budget each year. At the same, the state funding cuts we're staring at this year are unprecedented. Since the recession began in 2007, we haven't seen a cut this big. USF has been fiscally conservative throughout the recession, and it's helped us avoid precipitous cuts. But we may have run out of options, which is why setting tuition is such a critical decision."

[Last modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 5:36pm]


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