Tuition increases taste like ramen noodles.
They sound like an alarm clock going off hours before class, leaving enough time for an extra shift at a minimum-wage job. They feel like delayed grad school. Like yet another loan.
"Our costs are going up, but everything that could help us is either going away or dwindling," said University of South Florida senior Aaron Campbell.
Far away from the board room where higher education leaders decided last week that — for the fifth year in a row — state budget cuts make tuition hikes a necessary evil, students are having a hard time with their end of the bargain.
From ground-level, it's tough to see the university layoffs avoided and courses saved when the sticker price keeps going up. It doesn't seem fair when news headlines show a sagging job market waiting on the other side.
Even while Congress voted Friday to freeze the interest rate of federally subsidized student loans for a year, students aren't celebrating. Consistent tuition increases mean those loans cover less each year.
This is the reality of higher education in Florida and elsewhere: Students are paying more and more, and they can't tell what they're getting for it.
Take Campbell, for instance.
With graduation on the horizon, the 22-year-old music education major is suddenly paying close attention to the value of his degree. What he sees makes him nervous.
Jobs are harder to find than ever. And he'll definitely need one — not only to pay for rent and food and the rest of it, but to pay off his student loans.
"They kind of have us by the short hairs," Campbell said.
• • •
Florida's higher education leaders are left with little choice.
The governor wants the state to lead the nation in affordability, yet he signed a budget that includes a cut to universities with eight zeros in it.
With Gov. Rick Scott's feelings in mind, the board charged with overseeing the state university system last week did not approve 15 percent tuition increases for every school, as allowed by law and as it has for the past few years. Instead, the Florida Board of Governors divvied up hikes to the state's 11 universities that ranged from 9 percent at the University of Florida to the maximum 15 percent at just a handful — a move Scott still deemed "disappointing."
But the hikes still don't come close to making up the decline in state support over the last five years, a drop of almost half with tuition making up only about 20 percent of the difference.
"I think it's easier to make a decision on tuition when you're adding value to a university, in a flat budget year," board chairman Dean Colson said after the vote last week. "When tuition increases instead are affecting how much money you're not losing, it's a different dynamic."
So, really, nobody's satisfied.
The frustration was evident Friday, when board members heard one university argue for a higher tuition increase than it was granted last week.
Quality costs money, said Florida Gulf Coast University board of trustees chairwoman Robbie Roepstorff, who appealed for a 14 percent increase instead of the 12 percent the school was allowed. Without extra money, course sections could shrink and class sizes could grow.
"Our students," she said, "absolutely deserve no less."
The appeal was denied.
• • •
On the federal front, students were bracing for another serious blow — as Congress went down to the wire Friday before deciding to stop some student loan interest rates from doubling.
If lawmakers hadn't agreed at the last minute to pay for a $6 billion rate freeze, loan payments would have increased for 7 million students across the country, 450,000 in Florida, by an average of $1,000.
Not exactly pocket change.
"It's easy for people to say it's just another $1,000," said 21-year-old Jessica Winder. But for the USF psychology senior planning on earning her doctorate, the costs of student loan debt is already "astronomical."
"You have to keep tightening up the change purse," she said. "But how much tighter can you tighten it? The college student lifestyle is eating ramen noodles every night."