TAMPA — The skies were still black at 5 a.m. but the students came anyway, nibbling muffins and hauling backpacks onto a bus at the University of South Florida. They snapped pictures of Rocky the Bull's mascot head stored in the luggage compartment, and settled in for the four-hour road trip.
About 75 in all, they were bound for the State Capitol on Tuesday, both to celebrate their school for USF Day in Tallahassee and talk to any legislators who would listen to their message:
Hold down tuition. Increase funding.
"I'm almost broke," said Chakara Wimberly, 23, who has paid for her studies in public health with a combination of scholarships, grants and loans. "This is my last semester. I work three jobs. I'm up to 40 hours a week. I live below my means. It's not like I'm living in a luxury apartment. … I think I'm worthy of a degree."
The bus trip was part of the statewide Aim Higher campaign organized by the Florida Student Association, which hopes to convince the Legislature to make higher education funding a priority and thereby keep students from entering the workforce deep in debt. That funding, organizers say, also benefits university research efforts and supplies high-quality jobs. USF is the third largest employer in Hillsborough County and ranks 50th in the country for expenditures in research.
It's a crucial time for higher education in Florida. Tuition at the state's public universities is among the lowest in the country but has been quickly rising.
State financial support for higher education has dropped more than $1 billion in the past six years. At the same time, enrollment has grown by more than 35,000 students, enough to fill a whole university.
For USF, the decline in funding over those years meant total cuts of more than $120 million, including a $50 million reduction in the most recent fiscal year. To cover the gap, the state has saddled students with higher tuition. At USF in Tampa, undergraduate tuition for in-state students rose from $152.57 per credit hour in 2009 to $211.14 in 2012. When fees are factored in, the total bill for two semesters has risen from $3,990 to $6,334 in the last four years.
The picture was similar at other state universities. At Florida State, in-state tuition for two semesters jumped from $3,987 in 2009 to $6,403. in 2012. Similarly, tuition at the University of Florida jumped from $3,777 to $6,143.
Florida universities traditionally compete with each other for money and stature. But in the wake of student outcry, the state's university presidents stood together in Tallahassee in December, asking the Legislature for a restoration of $300 million in one-time cuts made in 2012. They also asked for an additional $118 million in the 2013-2014 school year — the equivalent of a 15 percent, across-the-board tuition increase.
In the budget he proposed last month, Gov. Rick Scott called for no increases in tuition and asked the Legislature to restore the cuts. He suggested tying a $167 million chunk of that restoration to performance factors such as how many students get jobs after graduation and how much income they earn. He also recommended a "Finish in Four" plan, freezing tuition for students who complete degrees in four years.
Students on the bus to Tallahassee were worried not only about getting jobs after graduation, but paying off the loans they'd amassed to pay for degrees, housing and books.
"I have taken out a significant amount of loans," said Daniel Hamilton, 21, who usually works until 3 a.m. in a USF dining hall to cover his bills. "The job market is a hard thing out there. The fun is over. It gets real."
Hamilton said he is already $20,000 in debt.
Most of the students had written postcards to deliver to lawmakers.
To whom it may concern: As you begin to map out budget plans for our state, I hope you will invest in higher education. Our public universities are building the leaders of tomorrow.
I don't want to burden my parents with any more loans.
My bank account looks like my GPA. 3.80.
Times staff writer Rochelle Koff contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394.