TALLAHASSEE — Of the many disagreements lawmakers are having about the future of Florida's education system, one thing doesn't seem to be in contention: College tuition is going up. Way up.
Both the House and Senate budget proposals call for an 8 percent tuition increase at all state universities.
The schools then have the option of asking students to pay even more, resulting in as high as a 15 percent increase in total.
Most major universities plan on employing that option. The University of Florida has already announced a 15 percent tuition hike, as it did last year.
The final packages at the University of South Florida and Florida International University haven't been decided yet, but spokesmen for both schools say they most likely will enact 15 percent increases.
"This is in order to provide a good quality of education, to be where our peer institutions are,'' said Steve Orlando, a UF spokesman.
The rocketing rates come at a time when lawmakers are working to revamp higher education in Florida. Among the proposed changes are raising standards for the Bright Futures scholarships and tasking the Board of Governors — which oversees the university system — with finding ways to pull ahead in U.S. News and World Report's rankings of top state universities, where UF is currently tied for 15th with University of Texas in Austin and Penn State.
"We are the fourth-largest state in the country,'' said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, the Ormond Beach Republican who heads the state's higher education budget committee. "We should have the best universities.''
The optional hike is known in the Capitol as the "tuition differential.'' Last year, the state began allowing all 11 of its universities to tack on additional tuition costs — as long as 30 percent of the new revenue goes toward need-based aid, and the rest toward improving undergraduate academics. Community colleges don't have a differential tuition option.
That aid might help soften the blow for recipients of the Bright Futures scholarships, which have traditionally paid the full cost of tuition at state universities and colleges for students with top grade-point averages and test scores. In the best-case budget scenario, the amount of money given to each Bright Futures recipient won't increase next year, despite the tuition increases.
The average cost for tuition and fees at a Florida university hovers around $4,500 per year — among the lowest in the country. Schools could cost anywhere between $350 and $700 more next year.
The universities will be allowed to use differential tuition at such a rate until they reach the nationwide average tuition of state universities, which is around $6,500 a year.
Dean Colson, a member of the Board of Governors, said current tuition rates in Florida don't do enough to create a more ideal academic environment, one that fosters undergraduate research and provides financial aid for the underprivileged.
"The additional revenues (from differential tuition) can help us develop a world-class education system,'' Colson said.
Robert Samuels can be reached at email@example.com.