SARASOTA — A college degree is an investment, and the state's public universities need to show that they are providing good returns for both their students and Florida taxpayers, Gov. Rick Scott told members of the state Board of Governors on Tuesday.
Scott also made clear that he opposes increasing tuition rates, despite concerns from some that the state university system is underfunded.
"I don't believe we ought to be raising tuition," Scott said. "I'm still concerned about the cost of higher education."
University leaders argue the state has left schools little choice. As schools are being challenged to increase student achievement, they're also being asked to absorb state budget reductions.
Florida State University president Eric Barron said the national profile of his school suffered after it was forced to cut 200 faculty positions to balance its budget in 2010. While Florida State is looking for ways to reduce costs, more tax dollars would help, he said.
"My hope is that as we begin to find efficiencies and reinvest, hopefully the state also sees a reason to give us a little bit of (general revenue) and let us hold our tuition down," Barron said.
After vetoing tuition increases earlier this year, Scott created a task force to identify ways to improve the higher education system.
The group has since recommended that lawmakers either give universities the additional money to reach their achievement goals and missions, or grant them flexibility to find the revenue elsewhere, including through tuition increases.
Last week, Scott criticized the proposal, telling state community college leaders he would oppose "a blind call for more money" from the panel. On Tuesday, he said he would be open-minded to what the group had to say, to a degree.
"I'm glad that we're having all these conversations," Scott said. "I look forward to reading the report. … But I can tell you, I'm concerned about tuition."
Dale Brill, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation and chairman of the task force, said the group is merely asking lawmakers to give universities enough money to meet the expectations placed upon them. That money should be tied to performance measures, Brill said.
"Increase tuition only as a backstop," he said.
The group also is recommending that schools be allowed to charge a different tuition for courses in majors tied to "high-skill, high-wage and high-demand jobs." Members also suggest that the state give universities additional funding to offset the impact for Florida residents in the early years.
The decision to tie new funding to performance goals is a place where Scott and the board found common ground.
State universities said they expect the Legislature to restore $300 million in cuts that were supposed to be a one-time reduction last year. But schools are also asking for $118 million in new money, which theoretically will be tied to universities' performance.
Scott had some ideas about what the state should measure: the percentage of graduates who get a job or continue their education, how much they earn in the workforce, and the cost of their degrees. Board members suggested the state also measure graduation and retention rates.
Scott said he was open to their input.
"I'd like to get your ideas on how much we need for higher ed," he said. "How do we get a result? How should we measure? How should we allocate it?"