University fees: tuition by another name?
Sparking a lively debate Wednesday at a budget committee meeting of the Florida Board of Governors were a handful of universities' requests to charge new student fees.
Those that got the most attention, before being voted down, were proposed fees for "academic enhancement" at three universities -- the University of North Florida, University of South Florida and University of Florida. They were seen by some board members as tuition by a different name.
The requests come at a time when the state Legislature has called for $300 million in cuts to the state university system, which lawmakers expect universities to cover with reserve funds. Lawmakers also expect the universities to raise their tuition up to a 15 percent cap. But school leaders say even that increase -- and the four years of hikes before it -- don't come close to making up for the growing state funding shortfall. Over five years, that total loss in has grown to about 50 percent.
"I don't like any of these fees," said BOG member John Rood, "but we also realize that our revenues are going down, our students are going up, and these universities need funds."
Still, many board members had problems with putting more of a financial burden on students to cover things that traditionally were funded by tuition dollars -- things like academic counseling, graduate assistants and internship initiatives.
UNF and UF's fees would have totaled about 5 percent of tuition. USF's proposed fee was called "cost-neutral" because the cost would have been set at the amount a couple of existing fees were set to increase, based on impending tuition hikes from the Legislature, with those existing fee increases frozen for the first year. So students would have still seen their costs going up, but only at the rate they would have gone up anyway. (That total increase this year would have been $0 with no tuition hike, and about $1.50 per credit hour if tuition went up the full 15 percent.)
"One of the things that really bothers me, is we always look at fees coming one at a time," said BOG member Norm Tripp. "If you list them all, they start adding up. That's kind of a problem... These fees, they're just more tuition. We're just calling it something different."
Speaking of tuition, two universities are still waiting to see if Gov. Rick Scott will sign or veto a bill that would allow them to increase tuition beyond that 15 percent cap. The bill provides that flexibility only if the universities meet 11 of 14 benchmarks. Right now, only FSU and UF do.
In making his case for the new fee at UF, university President Bernie Machen said that if that new tuition bill goes through, he would phase out the new fee. But that didn't convince the board, who voted down his fee 9-1.
Machen was disappointed. Call it a fee, call it tuition, but the fact remains, "I don't have the money."
The beauty of this fee, Machen said, is that it would have circumvented future budget cuts.
"The Board of Governors has stuck its head in the sand," Machen said after the vote.
The board did accept two fee proposals for specific purposes not traditionally covered by tuition: the University of West Florida's request to charge $1 per credit hour for a fee funding "green" campus initiatives and a $2,400 per student fee at Florida A&M University's law school for a new test prep program.