Friday, December 15, 2017

Higher (priced) education

Pay more. Get less. That's the reality at the state's 11 public universities, where prices have gone up six years in a row. This year, another 15 percent increase is likely, and a bill making its way through the Legislature could allow certain top universities to charge even more in years to come — so-called market rate tuition.

State leaders justify the increases by pointing out how cheap Florida's higher education is compared to other states. At an average of $184.36 per credit hour, Florida ranks 45th out of 50 states in tuition costs.

But behind that argument is a fundamental problem: While prices at universities have gone up, state support has dwindled. The extra tuition money is not filling the gap. That means students are paying more than ever and getting larger classes, fewer professors and fewer course offerings.

It's not just Florida. All across the country, university systems are moving away from being state-supported and more toward being state-assisted, with tuition dollars used for the difference. State funding in Florida used to cover about 75 percent of a student's higher education costs. Now it's more like 50 percent, with the students picking up the other half. That's still a lot better than in other states. Students in Vermont and New Hampshire, for instance, pay more like 80 percent of their college costs, according to the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs. Fifty percent is actually close to the national average.

That doesn't mean anybody's happy about it.

Talk to people from different sides of the debate — students, professors, university leaders and lawmakers — and you'll hear the same thing: The situation is far from ideal.

Students, even the third in Florida who receive the Bright Futures Scholarship, have not gotten used to the idea of shouldering the bulk of their college costs.

Professors don't like to see students struggling financially, but they also don't like to see their colleagues leaving for higher-paying jobs out of state.

University presidents have to manage competing interests — trying to accommodate students while trying to stay competitive nationally and meet higher expectations from state leaders to stimulate the economy.

For lawmakers, the juggling act extends beyond the higher education world — figuring out a way to keep universities healthy without raising health care costs or cutting from public safety, among other realms.

It may be a question of philosophy. Does a well-educated society serve the public good, thus warranting an investment from the state? Or is a university degree more of an individual benefit that should be paid for by the person?

Here is what a student, a legislator, a university president and a professor have to say about tuition costs.

Tuition increases have become the inevitable antidote to the universities' financial shortfalls. But for now, they are just a Band-Aid on a wound that's still bleeding.

The student

Jacob Hyppolite went into college knowing he'd leave with debt. The 20-year-old Florida Atlantic University junior didn't get the Bright Futures Scholarship, and he had his sights set on law school.

To him, his education is an investment — one he is willing to pay for out of his own pocket. This semester is costing him more than $8,000, including both tuition and living expenses. At FAU, tuition and fees total $177 a credit hour, or more than $2,600 for 15 hours.

But each year that investment seems less wise, Hyppolite said, with tuition going up and the quality of his education going down.

Last semester, for instance: Hyppolite took a microeconomics class with 300 other students. He tried to see the professor during his office hours, but the line went around the hallway. When he finally did get in, he felt rushed.

"It's like, 'I'm paying all this money,' " Hyppolite said, "But for right now it's not looking like it. I'm not getting what I pay for."

He's already $20,000 in debt. How much of a tuition increase would he tolerate? It's hard to say. If tuition goes up much more than it already has — without the added quality — Hyppolite says he'd almost rather spend the money on a private school. Sure, he'd be paying more, but at least he would get the personal attention from teachers that he wants. "What matters in the end is the education I'm getting," Hyppolite said.

The professor

Rick Yost looks around the University of Florida chemistry department and sees empty offices.

They're a reminder of all the faculty who have left in the past few years, about 30 percent of the program's total head count. It wasn't because of money in every case, but Yost can't imagine that's not part of it.

"Some are concerned about what the future holds," said Yost, "and whether it is time to think about looking some place else."

As chair of the Florida Advisory Council of Faculty Senates and member of the Florida Board of Governors, Yost hears the same thing across the state. Somebody told him the other day that a whole department at a university did away with its Xerox machines. If professors want to hand out hard-copy syllabuses or tests, they've got to pay for them themselves at Kinko's. Other universities' departments have gotten rid of all their land line phones.

But those are small inconveniences. The much more detrimental effect of funding cuts are larger classes, more graduate students serving as teachers and less time to spend one-on-one with students.

If state funding remained flat, even a small tuition hike would help universities retain faculty, recruit more and improve the quality of their classes.

But for now, with the Legislature factoring extra money from assumed tuition hikes into budget recommendations — even before universities decide if they want the increases — it seems universities will have to keep using the money to fill an ever-expanding hole.

"I think as we disinvest in higher education, the long-term effect is going to be very negative," Yost said. "This is a place we should be investing."

The university president

Sometimes, when Florida State University president Eric Barron is feeling particularly stressed, he steps out of his office and takes a walk around campus. He sees students studying, playing sports, chatting with each other and walking to and from their classes, and it lightens the stress of the juggling act he has to perform each day.

It is, after all, about the students. They are the reason Barron has to ask for tuition increases, even if students don't always like it. He feels a responsibility to give them the quality education they expect — and he needs money to do it.

Barron knew what he was getting into when he took the presidency two years ago, but he'd hoped things would turn around by now. Last year, he found himself repeating a mantra: "One more year, one more year."

This year, he's saying the same thing.

As president of a university that has seen its support from the state shrink by 25 percent in the past four years, increased tuition may not be the most popular solution, but he has little other choice.

"I try to go back and say, okay, if they were to go outside the state, they would not be getting such a bargain," Barron said. That makes him feel a little better. Still, "There's no way you're not going to feel all those hardships."

Now Barron is one of two university presidents who could soon be granted wider power over those increases, as FSU meets performance-based benchmarks laid out by the House and Senate that would allow him to start charging more than the existing 15 percent cap. (The University of Florida is the other.) That would still need approval by Gov. Rick Scott, though, who has said he does not support tuition hikes.

It's difficult for Barron to pin a specific dollar amount on how much money he wants with the increased tuition-setting flexibility, particularly if legislators approve more recurring cuts. Simply getting more money isn't the ultimate goal. The university needs resources, but Barron wants to ensure tuition hikes are balanced with financial aid increases, that they are used to offer classes with unmet demands and are spent on innovative areas creating jobs for the state.

"I do believe that we are a tremendous bargain," Barron said. "But we do need to make sure that the burden doesn't rest on the students that aren't covered by federal aid, yet don't have much in the way of family resources."

The lawmaker

A man came to Marlene O'Toole's district office and showed her a pile of bills. Rent, electric, phone, food. That person, the taxpayer, is on O'Toole's mind when she's trying to figure out where to cut the budget.

As chair of the House's higher education committee, O'Toole understands that university students don't want more tuition hikes, but she also understands that other sectors of her constituency are stretched thin on the essentials, like living expenses, taxes, health care.

"I think it's a balancing act," said O'Toole, R-The Villages.

People generally understand sustaining support to K-12 education, she says, but when it comes to higher ed, tuition hikes are generally acceptable — especially considering Florida's already low prices.

She's not worried about access to higher education. With 11 public universities and 28 state colleges, many that offer bachelor's degrees, O'Toole is confident that students can get the education they deserve.

What she's more worried about is rising health care costs or ensuring support to public safety.

"These are the facts," O'Toole said. She hasn't said how much she thinks tuition should go up, but she reiterated that Florida's universities are an incredible deal.

"I don't have any trouble with it," she said.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or 813-226-3337.

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