In a state with an ever-increasing shortage of higher education funding, Florida's top universities could soon have the power to seek unlimited tuition hikes.
With a 36-3 Senate vote Thursday, legislation that would allow universities to raise tuition beyond a 15 percent cap — after reaching certain benchmarks and getting the okay from the Florida Board of Governors — is headed to the governor.
It's a move that has the support of higher education leaders and university presidents, particularly at the University of Florida and Florida State University. Those are the only two that qualify, having met 11 of the 14 prerequisites.
UF President Bernie Machen and FSU President Eric Barron praised the Legislature for setting those benchmarks, which include an average incoming freshmen GPA score of 3.8 and spending at least $200 million on research.
"This bill is as much about making universities accountable as it is about tuition," Barron said.
"The specific benchmarks chosen all add value to the state, and it will be good when more of the state university system meets them," Machen said.
Neither president would give details about how much or when he hoped to raise tuition if HB 7129 is signed into law.
Barron said he wanted hikes to focus on student needs and areas in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Machen indicated he wanted to reach the national average for tuition and fees, which is $8,244 a year for undergraduates.
At UF tuition and fees currently total $5,650; At FSU it's $5,825 — some of the cheapest rates in the country. But the proposal still must be signed by Gov. Rick Scott, who opposes tuition hikes. "As you know, I don't believe in tuition increases," Scott said Thursday, "so I'm going to look at that very closely."
Meanwhile, the Legislature is slashing state support to the state's 11 universities for the fifth year in a row — by 20 percent this year, after 25 percent cumulatively since 2007.
Kelly Layman, spokeswoman for the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, said given that reality, the board doesn't love the idea of raising tuition.
"But we are committed to the concept that the (UF or FSU) student would receive more for that money," Layman said. "The board is behind being more nationally competitive."
Layman also pointed out that the bill depends on Scott. Whether Scott vetoes it or not, however, students should brace for tuition hikes.
Under a program known as tuition differential, universities are allowed to increase tuition beyond legislative base hikes, so long as the total does not exceed 15 percent per year. The state budget being voted on by lawmakers Friday does not include a base tuition increase, with universities expected to seek the full 15 percent hike on their own.
The idea behind tuition differential sounded a lot like this proposal: to allow top universities to use tuition money for enhancing students' education. But over the past few years, that privilege has been extended to all 11 universities, who say they've had to use much of the money in an attempt to fill the increasingly gaping hole of state support.
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.