TALLAHASSEE — If Florida lawmakers demand more science and technology college graduates, University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and other state university leaders have an idea of their own:
Allow colleges to charge undergraduates a higher, market-based tuition for those more extensive courses.
But Genshaft also cautioned lawmakers Wednesday against neglecting needy students as state officials press to improve public universities and colleges.
"I don't want to see students that have less of an income not be able to enter a field that they're talented in. So as long as we can cover that level, then I have no problem with the market-based (approach)," Genshaft told the House Education Committee.
She and other presidents are speaking to the panel this month about improving Florida's colleges and universities.
Gov. Rick Scott has pressed for greater emphasis in "STEM" — science, technology, engineering and math — fields to meet the state's economic needs. But changes could shift the programs and funding of schools.
Genshaft encouraged lawmakers to give schools more flexibility if they set performance benchmarks for institutions to meet.
"If you have certain goals, you tell me your certain goals. Then you allow the flexibility for us to get there," Genshaft said. "Very often we have a lot of constraints. We get there, we get there. But it isn't the fastest route."
Market-based tuition has prompted interest from leading lawmakers this session, because it could avoid cuts to traditional programs in a time of tight state spending. It is currently allowed for graduate programs.
Presidents at the University of Florida and Florida State University endorsed it to lawmakers last week, and incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, also says "the market" should set tuition.
Some university leaders, such as University of West Florida president Judith Bense, say another solution may be to allow university to raise the base tuition rate. That power now rests with the Legislature.
Despite increases in recent years, Florida's public universities still are inexpensive when compared with their counterparts across the nation. At USF, for example, tuition and fees cost about $5,000 a year for a full-time, in-state student. And many students enter with some costs covered, officials say.
"I don't think getting a university education should be like getting a free library book," University of North Florida president John Delaney said.
But Congress has threatened further cuts to Pell Grant and other student aid, triggering worries by Genshaft that tuition increases mixed with less aid would hurt students, particularly as the state has reduced money for Bright Futures scholarships.
The Legislature could help by increasing its higher education funding, said Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie. But Scott's proposed budget for higher education next year is essentially flat.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com.