After saying for months he does not believe in tuition increases, Gov. Rick Scott stuck to his word Friday and vetoed a bill that would have allowed unlimited tuition hikes at top Florida universities.
Instead, he's now calling on higher education leaders to review how each of the state's 11 (soon to be 12) public universities fits into the system as a whole, and how each spends its money.
Scott said next week he'll initiate a further review of the universities, with the goal of understanding "the return on an increased investment."
The veto comes at a tense time, with universities bracing for a painful state budget cut for the fifth year in a row. This year, the total cut to the system is $300 million.
Had Scott signed HB 7129, universities that met 11 of 14 performance-based benchmarks would have been allowed to ask the Florida Board of Governors for hikes beyond a current 15 percent cap. The criteria included high GPAs of incoming freshmen and a high amount of research activity, for example. Only the University of Florida and Florida State University would have qualified.
UF and FSU were hoping to use additional revenues to enhance academic programs. They lobbied the governor hard on that point, putting on a town-hall meeting of sorts in Tallahassee a couple of weeks ago to lay out their arguments.
UF president Bernie Machen said he wanted to raise his tuition to the national average, starting with freshmen admitted for fall 2013. UF's tuition is currently about $5,700 a year. The national average is closer to $8,000. Machen said he would've used the money to hire more faculty.
FSU president Eric Barron wanted to use the money to bolster FSU's programs in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
Both expressed disappointment in statements Friday
Machen said he was "saddened," and that "this legislation presented the University of Florida with a pathway toward excellence."
Barron said "there is no doubt that this will slow our plans, given that the Legislature continues to take away resources."
The Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, had a similar reaction.
"Hopefully, someday soon, the state will decide to provide our universities with the tools they need to compete on a national stage," said board chair Dean Colson.
State University System chancellor Frank Brogan said regardless of the veto, the board would continue to advocate for increased investment in Florida's universities.
The board already expects to hear from each university about their missions, goals and achievements at its next meeting in June — part of the annual "work plans" universities are required to present before asking for tuition differential increases. Those go along with the board's recently released 2012-2025 strategic plan and annual accountability report, which include a host of new goals, like increased enrollment and a renewed focus on STEM fields.
The governor, who campaigned as an efficiency-minded businessman, has long been vocal about universities needing to use their resources to ensure that graduates can get jobs. Last year he asked the schools to provide data on everything from job descriptions of their highest-paid employees, costs and revenues for each of their programs and academic requirements for undergraduates.
He also has criticized universities raising tuition, which they've done for the past several years, saying that in the private sector, that kind of continual price hike would not allow any company to stay in business.
Under a program called "tuition differential," universities' boards of trustees are allowed to ask the Board of Governors for tuition hikes beyond whatever the Legislature adds to base tuition, so long as the total does not exceed 15 percent per year.
This year's state budget does not include any base tuition hikes, instead assuming that universities will seek the full 15 percent on their own.
The universities say those increases, originally intended to enhance undergraduate education when the program began in 2008, have done nothing but offset state budget cuts — and even then, only partially.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)226-3337.