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Florida Senate approves bill to raise university tuition

TALLAHASSEE — State university students will face tuition hikes of up to 15 percent annually under legislation that passed the Florida Senate on a 30-7 vote Monday.

It's the first big test for the measure, which allows all 11 state universities to charge a tuition differential, or supplement, which is a power previously awarded to the University of Florida, Florida State, South Florida, Central Florida and Florida International.

Combined with base tuition, the increases cannot equal more than 15 percent a year and must be approved by the Board of Governors, the goal being to get Florida to the national average of more than $6,500 for tuition and fees. In-state tuition and fees for a full-time student in Florida are now less than $3,900 a year.

"We've got education so cheap now that it's a miracle that we've been able to do as much as we have over these years," Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, said during debate.

The bill now moves to the House, where approval is expected, and then for certain signing by Gov. Charlie Crist, who has made the measure one of his legislative priorities for 2009.

University presidents, 10 of whom gathered in the Capitol on Thursday to protest proposed cuts to their budgets, are grateful that Crist and lawmakers support the tuition increase.

But they also stress that for the next few years, it won't bring in enough money to make up for the cuts under consideration by lawmakers trying to deal with the state's $3 billion budget deficit.

"The extra tuition softens the blow, but we've got a much bigger hole to dig out of," said University of North Florida president John Delaney.

Under the House proposal, the 11 state universities would lose a total of $260 million in recurring state funding. The Senate's proposal is more generous than the House's, adding $120 million, but that comes from using federal stimulus dollars that run out in three years.

Under the House plan, the University of South Florida's state funding would be cut by $78 million. The tuition increase next year would bring in only an additional $16 million, said USF president Judy Genshaft. The situation is similar at the University of Central Florida, where president John Hitt warns layoffs and program closures are likely. At UF, the House wants to cut $90 million, and the increase would bring in $20 million.

"So it would take us five years to recover from that kind of cut," said UF president Bernie Machen. "It means a lot for the future, but it doesn't do much right now."

Of the seven nay votes in the Senate, all were from Republicans but for Sen. Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, voted against the measure, saying, "What we will be doing with this bill is moving college out of reach for a vast segment of our population."

Storms, who said she had recently purchased a prepaid tuition contract for her newborn son, expressed concern that lower- and middle-class families will no longer be able to afford a college education.

"What we're supposed to be doing as a state and as a people is giving hope," Storms said. "We're not looking for equal outcome, we're looking for equal opportunity."

The Prepaid College Board has a deal in place to cover added tuition for any contracts sold before July 1, 2007. For contracts sold since then, the board sells plans for the extra tuition.

As for Bright Futures, the added tuition would not be covered by those scholarships. So, even with a 100 percent scholarship, recipients starting next year would face extra costs.

Florida Senate approves bill to raise university tuition 04/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 12:55am]
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