TAMPA — They've slashed their budgets. Eliminated programs and laid off faculty. Upped tuition. Downright begged.
With the Florida Legislature cutting ever deeper into the state's 11 public universities, those institutions have no choice but to change the way they do business.
One example? Trying to attract more out-of-state students, who pay about three times more in tuition than Florida residents.
Doing that would serve up millions of dollars without much additional effort. After all, officials say, it costs the same to educate a Pennsylvania student as it does someone from Pinellas.
The University of South Florida is taking a concerted step toward that goal, reducing fees for out-of-state graduate students by 15 percent. The University of Florida also has mentioned increasing out-of-state enrollment as a revenue-raising strategy. Other universities say they're open to any new revenue-building ideas.
Some might cry foul, asking: What about Florida kids? Won't they lose spots?
The reality is that they'll suffer more without the boost, said Ralph Wilcox, USF's provost and chief academic officer.
More money means more professors. And right now, the student-faculty ratio across Florida's university system, a widely recognized indicator of quality, is embarrassingly high.
Said Wilcox: "You get what you pay for."
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Numbers tell the story:
• A 17 percent cut in public funding for the state university system between 2007 and 2010, even as enrollment grew by 7 percent.
• Thirty-five degree programs terminated in the 2010-2011 school year.
• The number of full-time, tenured faculty down about 5 percent from 2007 to 2009.
• Budgets cut by millions.
Tuition increases, which under state law can't exceed 15 percent a year, have been looked to as the primary way to fill the budget gap. But administrators say that infusion isn't enough.
Enter the non-Florida residents.
They currently make up about 6 percent of USF's more than 47,000 students. Many come from places where in-state university costs are equal or greater than Florida's nonresident rates. Even with recent hikes, Florida's tuition is still among the cheapest in the country.
Out-of-state undergraduate students pay between $18,000 and $27,000 in tuition and fees a year, depending on the school. And graduate students pay thousands more, according to data from the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system.
Meanwhile, it costs universities about $10,000 to educate one student, regardless of where he or she came from, Wilcox said. That means all the extra money from non-Florida students is pumped back into school coffers, which benefits everybody.
Bringing in students from other places also is good for campus diversity, Wilcox said. And it would help make USF's growing research prowess better known around the world.
"It's really us reinvesting in our university," he said.
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There is one hitch.
Under Board of Governors regulations, non-Florida resident enrollment across the state university system, now at about 8 percent, is capped at 10 percent.
"We are, after all, a state-supported public university system," said Board of Governors spokeswoman Kelly Layman. "The Board of Governors has always been protective of ensuring we have as much accessibility to Florida residents as possible."
Wilcox has an answer to that, too.
He said with the new USF Polytechnic Institute breaking ground in Polk County, in addition to USF campuses in Tampa, Sarasota and St. Petersburg, there's space to grow both out-of-state and Florida resident enrollment.
"We're not forsaking our Florida students," he said.
If both in-state and out-of-state groups grow at the same time, it won't threaten that percentage cap.
And even a little boost would be a big benefit, Wilcox said.
Say USF brought in 1,000 more non-Florida residents to the campus. Multiply 1,000 by the tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-state tuition and fees, subtract the smaller amount it takes to educate them, and you still get lots of zeros.
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Remember, this is only one idea.
Staying afloat in this new era, with all the gaping holes in funding, takes many patches.
Expect an increase in distance learning courses, which are not limited by class size or location. Tuition for those online classes is the same as any other class plus an additional fee. The cost varies depending on the university or class, but at USF it's about $35 per credit hour for undergraduate students and $50 for graduates.
And then there's the new market-based tuition model. It basically allows universities to charge higher tuition than the rate set by the Legislature for certain high-demand graduate programs that are not in critical-needs areas. The Board of Governors must sign off on those requests.
USF hasn't asked the board to approve any programs under that model, but the University of Florida has, and plans to charge 11 percent more for its popular online MBA program in 2012 — $46,000 for a one-year program and $52,500 for a two-year program vs. 2011's $41,000 and $47,150, respectively.
Another interesting change involves what UF is calling its new "Innovation Academy." A group of 2,000 students will now be admitted only for the spring and summer semesters. That will immediately bring in more money, while making sure the school is using its resources most efficiently during those traditionally slower semesters.
That new group of students can't be on campus during the fall, but they can take online courses, study abroad or have internships.
Like the out-of-state enrollment bump, it's an unconventional piece of a solution still being cobbled together. And these are likely just the beginning.
UF Board of Trustees chairman Carlos Alfonso put it this way: "There's just so many sacred cows, or codified ideas, that it's almost like we don't have to challenge them because we've never had to challenge them before.
"We have to look at everything."
Reach Kim Wilmath at email@example.com or 813-226-3337.