TAMPA — In a move the chairman of the University of South Florida Board of Trustees said would "send a message" to state lawmakers, USF trustees voted Thursday to only seek an 11 percent tuition increase for the upcoming school year.
The news is sure to be cheered by students and parents, who were bracing for the full 15 percent hike in differential tuition allowed by state law.
But, as chairman John Ramil put it, it's also a signal that the university is tired of having students pay to make up for state budget cuts.
"While one message to the Legislature is that we left money on the table, the other message to the Legislature is, 'We're not going to keep covering for you.' " said Ramil, president and CEO of TECO Energy.
The proposal still needs approval by the Florida Board of Governors, which meets next week in Orlando.
USF, which initially planned to ask for the full 15 percent, now joins the University of Florida in not reaching for the maximum. UF announced last week that it will seek a 9 percent increase. The state's nine other universities are all seeking 15 percent hikes.
UF's stance, albeit surprising, wasn't what inspired USF's change of heart, said USF provost Ralph Wilcox.
It was about the students, Wilcox told the board, nodding toward their student member, Brian Goff.
Goff, USF's student body president, smiled.
"This is a win," he said.
The decision comes at a time when Florida universities are reeling from five straight years of significant state cuts — $300 million this year alone, with $50 million coming from USF. Lawmakers assumed the schools would raise differential tuition to the full 15 percent cap. Those speculative revenues are actually written into the state budget.
So while students get a little break next year — paying about $500 more in tuition and fees when they could have paid close to an extra $700 — USF's bottom line is now short more than $4 million.
That irked trustee Elizabeth Bird, the board's faculty representative, who said asking for anything less than the maximum increase was "shooting ourselves in the foot."
USF desperately needs the extra money to recruit and retain faculty, Bird said. During the past five years of cuts, the university has lost more than 260 faculty members.
"Make no mistake," she said. "We are at the tipping point."
While Bird was the only trustee to vote against the 11 percent proposal, plenty of others agreed with her dire forecast.
Soon, Wilcox said, "We're going to start seeing enrollment fall off, degree production plateau at best, and research productivity flatten."
Tuition differential is one of the three elements of a student's final sticker price. The other two are base tuition and fees.
The differential portion is intended to provide schools with revenue above and beyond the base tuition increases approved by state lawmakers. The differential money is supposed to literally "differentiate" universities by helping them enhance undergraduate education.
That hasn't happened. For the most part, the revenue has been used to offset declining state support.
This year, Gov. Rick Scott made it clear he opposed higher tuition. So lawmakers put no base increases in the budget, leaving it up to universities to seek the maximum 15 percent in differential.
USF says it plans to use almost half of the additional money for need-based financial aid. The rest would go toward expanding science, technology, engineering and math programs, expanding distance learning programs, enhancing advising for student veterans, and providing more financial and debt counseling for students, among other things.
Those details will be an important part of the sell to the Board of Governors, said USF president Judy Genshaft. Even requests of less than 15 percent are sure to be scrutinized closely, she said.
Remember what the governor thinks?
"This year," Genshaft said, "it's going to be different."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.