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Block tuition intrigues UF, but USF? Not so much

Goodbye, college tuition by the credit hour?

Maybe at the University of Florida, where administrators say that charging "block tuition" instead could give students an incentive to graduate sooner.

But maybe not at other Florida universities, which have yet to express an interest in the idea.

And certainly not in the near future at the University of South Florida, where administrators say they need to study how block tuition might affect USF students before deciding whether to make a proposal.

This spring, the Legislature made it possible for Florida's 11 public universities to propose charging tuition in one-semester blocks, instead of by the credit hour, for full-time undergraduates.

Last week, the Florida Board of Governors opened the door to start considering block tuition proposals as soon as February. A switch to block tuition could be implemented only beginning with a fall semester.

So far, UF is the only university in the state to express serious interest in block tuition.

Administrators in Gainesville believe that making the change could increase access to the university. The university's four-year graduation rate is 58 percent, but increasing that rate would open up more seats to prospective students.

"We're trying to encourage students to graduate in a more timely fashion so their younger sister or brother or cousin can come to the University of Florida," university spokesman Steve Orlando said.

Here's how block tuition might work:

Currently, in-state undergraduates pay about $168 per credit hour to attend UF. The university is thinking about charging full-time students a block tuition rate equal to 15 credit hours. Based on this year's tuition, that would equal $2,520 per semester. Next year, after tuition increases that could hit 15 percent, the maximum annual tuition increase allowed in Florida, it could be closer to $2,900.

So if you took 18 credit hours, you would essentially buy five classes and get one free.

Take 12 hours, however, and you would still pay for the block of 15.

Students wouldn't be required to take a certain number of hours. But, Orlando said, "if they want to take a little longer to graduate and they want to take fewer hours, they'll have to pay for that privilege."

UF administrators haven't decided whether to cap the maximum number of credit hours a student could pay for under block tuition. In the fall of 2009, less than 1 percent of UF students took more than 18 hours. The most any single student took was 23, taken by a lone undergraduate.

Rules approved by the Board of Governors last week require universities that want to charge block tuition to explain how they'll ensure that sufficient courses are available to meet demand. UF would open sections if necessary, Orlando said.

Students with Bright Futures scholarships would see the program pay for only the hours they took. Therefore, if they took 12 hours, Bright Futures would pay for 12 hours. Students would still have to pay for the three credit hours they did not take.

The picture for students with Florida Prepaid College Plan contracts would be different, according to the Board of Governors' rule. Any student whose prepaid tuition contract was purchased prior to the implementation of block tuition would be billed on a per-credit-hour basis.

UF administrators estimate that block tuition would bring in an additional $4 million to $5 million a year, a fraction of what it takes to run a university with more than 50,000 students.

Raising revenue is "not the primary goal here," Orlando said.

Similarly, UF officials would not expect the change to have a dramatic impact on most students, who currently average 14.1 credit hours per semester.

At USF, the picture is different, and so is the university's reaction to block tuition.

USF students tend to be less affluent than their counterparts at UF or Florida State University. Compared with those schools, more USF students qualify for need-based Pell grants and take out student loans to pay for college. Many more must balance school with work, with 23 percent of USF's seniors working off-campus more than 30 hours a week.

That might explain why USF students start out taking an average of more than 14 hours per semester during their freshman year, but by their junior and senior years are averaging closer to 12 hours a semester.

Consequently, several USF officials said the university needs to study how students would react to block tuition, and whether it would help them graduate sooner, before looking at submitting a proposal to the state.

"We have to be careful about how we move," said Paul Dosal, USF's director of student success.

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Block tuition intrigues UF, but USF? Not so much 11/07/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 8, 2010 7:29am]
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