ORLANDO — In a back-and-forth banter befitting a cattle auction, state higher education leaders on Thursday settled on myriad new tuition increases for Florida's public universities.
The final figures were all over the map, from 9 percent at the University of Florida to a maximum 15 percent won by several schools, eliciting applause.
Hikes were expected this year, but the pressure on the decision was stronger than ever — with Gov. Rick Scott just days earlier calling for Florida to be No. 1 nationwide in making college affordable, and with a $300 million budget cut to the state university system around the corner.
It made for interesting theater.
The state Board of Governors came to the final increases after negotiating for more than two hours, tossing numbers out and making decisions that seemed at times arbitrary. People in the audience joked about making wagers.
Midway through, board member Ava Parker pointed out, "There seems to be no method to our madness."
Yet, they continued.
University of South Florida: 11 percent? No, make that 9 percent. No, back to 11 percent. Sold.
Florida A&M University: 15 percent? No, 12 percent. Sold.
Florida Atlantic University: 15 percent? Sold.
Florida State University: 15 percent? No, 13 percent. Sold.
"I don't think anybody's excited about what happened today and the way it happened," board chairman Dean Colson said.
It was no doubt the most hashed-out tuition decision the board has made since it was granted authority to raise a portion of those rates four years ago.
During that time, hike requests have typically sailed across the board's desk without revisions — totaling about 15 percent each year when added to base tuition hikes from the Legislature.
All but UF, USF and Florida Gulf Coast University had asked for that maximum amount again this year. The universities have until July 2 to appeal.
They had been warned to brace themselves, as Scott's message hung in the air.
Board member John Temple compared it to Tammany Hall.
"It's really a shame that there's obviously political interference here," Temple said.
Colson was a bit more delicate. "I think the governor's feelings matter," he said.
For the record, those feelings weren't good.
"I'm disappointed to see the Board of Governors' decision on tuition increases today," Scott said in a statement. "We can't continue on this path."
What he didn't mention was the other side of the equation.
Over the last five years, state support for universities has dropped by almost half. At the same time, tuition increases have made up only about 20 percent of the state money lost.
That means students are paying more and getting less. But it could be worse, some members pointed out.
"I have to say that it is definitely unsustainable to think of shifting the (financial) burden to students," said the student representative, University of Central Florida student body president Cortez Whatley. "What's even more unsustainable is thinking that these universities are going to continue to reform at the maximum efficiencies on a shoestring budget."
Of the revenue generated from the tuition increase, at least 30 percent will go toward need-based financial aid, and the rest will go toward enhancing undergraduate education, like hiring faculty.
Florida State University president Eric Barron said without additional tuition revenues, budget cuts could force universities to scale back course offerings. That could lead to students taking longer to graduate, which is a tuition hike in itself, Barron said.
Tico Perez, chairman of the board's budget and finance committee, liked that analogy.
"That's a year out of their life," Perez said. "A year not in the workforce."
When Thursday's meeting was over, board members and university representatives shuffled out — facial expressions ranging from relief to frustration to confusion.
A few key questions remained unanswered:
What's the proper dollar value of a college education?
And who — the state or the student — should have to pay for it?
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.