TALLAHASSEE — Two years ago, Florida created a pursuit policy for all state universities: Catch up with the national average for tuition — but at speeds no faster than 15 percent a year.
With maximum increases ever since, the chase is on. This year looks no different, with both the House and Senate assuming 15 percent tuition hikes.
But Florida universities remain on average the third cheapest in the country. And with state university budgets going down nearly 25 percent over the same time, some wonder how long the state can go after a moving target.
University of Florida president Bernie Machen has made the boldest move, calling for a 30 percent tuition increase. He and Florida State University president Eric Barron sent a joint letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking for "flexible university-specific tuition and fee models" to generate more revenue.
"Other universities around the country bit the bullet, rose their tuition to balance their budgets and then they're raising tuition at 4 percent or 6 percent. Whereas we're playing this catch up," Barron said in an interview. "Maybe we should just be looking at the national average and get it over with, rather then keep raising it on people."
Legislative leaders have more modest plans.
The Senate would leave all the heavy lifting to the universities, letting them make their case to the Board of Governors for a 15 percent increase.
Those increases have been granted every year.
House Speaker Dean Cannon said his support for allowing universities to increase tuition beyond the current 15 percent cap would depend on how it's implemented, especially as the state is "trying to balance access with quality."
"You have to be gradual because you don't want to undershoot or overshoot," he said. "Again, everything is on the table."
Senate President Mike Haridopolos ruled out raising the cap.
"I would not support that," he told officials at a recent Board of Governors meeting.
Gov. Rick Scott said he supports giving universities more flexibility in setting their tuition. When he heard university officials last week talk about growing numbers of applicants for limited spots, he said, "In business, you would raise prices."
He was more equivocal when reporters asked about Machen's recent proposal for a 30 percent tuition hike.
"There's two sides to it. Step one, we have to make sure we don't waste dollars and keep tuition low as possible," Scott said. "The other side is we've got to make sure we have the dollars in our system so we can have the best professors, the best system. It's both sides."
Absorbing budget cuts
Tuition covers only a small portion of university revenue, and over the past three years the state system has seen its funding cut by nearly 25 percent.
FSU's Barron, for instance, told a Senate higher education committee recently that universities in other states are able to pick off Florida professors, who face salary freezes and program cuts.
Twelve FSU business professors, he said, have been recruited since last year. Nine showed him offers that averaged out to $70,000 raises.
Almost all of them left.
Students have supported tuition increases because 30 percent of those increases were to go to need-based aid, said Braulio Colon, director of the Florida College Access Network in Tampa, an organization that promotes "college readiness" among lower-income students.
But he questioned why the national tuition average is the main factor under consideration.
"If we're going to look at national averages, let's look at national averages of funding per student," said Colon. "We should also be looking at the percentage of financial aid that's merit-based versus need-based."
Lawmakers already are targeting Bright Futures, the state's popular merit-based scholarship program.
The House plan calls for increasing SAT and community service standards so fewer students qualify.
The Senate plan would lop $1,000 off the Bright Futures award.
Who's paying sticker?
So how much do in-state students end up paying for tuition? Barron had FSU officials crunch the numbers for 2009-2010.
Not counting those with loans or prepaid tuition, a study found just over 60 percent of FSU's more than 27,000 undergraduates owed any money for tuition and fees, thanks to Bright Futures and other scholarships.
About half of those students paid $750 or less per term — roughly the same Barron paid as an FSU undergraduate in 1973.
And perhaps the most striking number? Less than 10 percent — about 1,300 — paid close to the $5,200-a-year sticker price.
"It occurred to me that the students are far from paying the amount that is our sticker price, which is very low compared to the amount nationally," Barron told a Senate committee.
Gallop Franklin II, a fifth-year pharmacy student at Florida A&M and chairman of the Florida Student Association, said he's not opposed to tuition increases. But he doesn't want the state to drop its investment.
"Whenever we talk about tuition increases and students paying more, we get into the issue of quality and what we're paying for," said Franklin, who serves as the student representative to the Board of Governors.
"We understand that balance and we're not against paying for a quality education. But not based on 'let's cut the state budget and put that remainder on the backs of the students.' "
University chancellor Frank Brogan said the state will have to be cautious about its next step with tuition increases.
"The headlong desire to get to the national average overnight," he said, "puts a huge burden on the students who are sitting there today."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 933-1321.