TALLAHASSEE — After years of fighting all but the smallest tuition increase for public university undergraduates, elected officials are embracing legislation to give Florida's 11 institutions authority to raise the cost of a degree by as much as 15 percent a year.
Just two years ago, Gov. Charlie Crist was resistant to even a 5 percent base tuition increase. Lawmakers have long boasted about the state's rock-bottom tuition, citing the politically expedient mantra of "access and affordability."
Now Crist has made the higher tuition proposal one of his legislative priorities for this year. And the Legislature's leaders are embracing it.
To understand the political shift, look no further than Florida's faltering economy and the business community whose leaders desperately need a turnaround.
Powerful business groups including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Council of 100 and TaxWatch are all urging lawmakers to approve the tuition reform.
Ask them why, and they reply with variations on It's the economy, stupid.
"Our members in the business community are telling us they don't have the talent pool to hire from in Florida, and they need to go elsewhere if we don't do something," said Kirsten Borman, spokeswoman for the Florida Chamber. "We recognize that talent is the most important economic development tool for our future."
State economists staring down the growing multibillion-dollar deficit say the days of relying on tourism, agriculture and new construction for Florida revenues are long gone.
The focus is shifting to a so-called "innovation economy" where research institutions like Scripps and the Burnham Institute can flourish. Think biomedicine and aerospace engineering.
Those industries require the best-trained minds, and university leaders have been warning for years that all roads to the Sunshine State's economic success lead through their campuses.
Just last week, university leaders gathered in Tallahassee to discuss the importance of their institutions to Florida's economy — from the students and faculty who spend locally to the research patents and startup companies that professors generate.
The University of Florida: $562 million in research last year, and an estimated $446-million in economic impact from UF technology company startups. Florida State faculty have produced over 500 patents, and the university helped generate 15 local startup companies.
"If you want to move the economy forward, it takes strong universities," said Rick Maxey, spokesman for the Board of Governors that oversees the 11 state universities. "You see it in California with Silicon Valley and in North Carolina with the research triangle."
But only recently, as the state's revenue picture grew even bleaker, have leading business groups been so vocal in urging the broad tuition reform under consideration this legislative session.
"There is a recognition that the universities don't have enough money, and the only way we're going to get it, given the leaders in place, is to require more in tuition," said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries, an influential business lobbying group. "We're moving into an intellectual property economy, and the postsecondary institutions are going to have to produce the workforce with the skills we need."
The support of groups like AIF gives elected officials — many of whom will no doubt hear from parents opposed to higher tuition bills — the political cover to vote yes.
Senate President Jeff Atwater made improving higher education a significant part of his remarks to Senate members at the opening of the legislative session a few weeks ago.
He spoke about building "intellectual capital from within," and transforming Florida into "the economic powerhouse of a knowledge economy."
"Senators, transforming Florida's future begins with preparing Florida's children to own the future," he said. "Investing in a quality education is vital to building intellectual capital."
Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is sponsoring the House bill (HB403) to allow universities to raise undergraduate tuition by up to 15 percent a year, 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.
Florida has just one institution, the University of Florida, ranked among the top 50 of public universities in the country.
The state university system has the highest student-faculty ratio in the country. Universities like FSU, UF and USF have been losing top professors in the past two years to states like North Carolina with stronger, better funded university systems.
The tuition legislation, sponsored by former Senate President Ken Pruitt in that chamber, would require that universities set aside 70 percent of the additional revenues to improve undergraduate programs through faculty hires and other academic enhancements.
"If we want to be competitive, we need to have the best state university system in the country," Weatherford said. "Our system right now is average."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.