TALLAHASSEE — Bowing to the pleas of Florida's cash-starved state universities, Gov. Charlie Crist will announce a plan today to allow all 11 schools to raise tuition up to 15 percent a year.
Crist will reverse his stated opposition to higher tuition by asking the Legislature to extend the same 15 percent tuition hike that five of the largest universities, including the University of South Florida and Florida International University in Miami, could charge this year.
The proposal would increase financial aid to the state's poorer students because 30 percent of the money raised would be used to lower tuition and fees for low-income students, according to drafts of the plan obtained by the Times/Herald.
The proposal was developed over a period of months in conversations among the governor's office, the Board of Governors that oversees the state universities, university presidents and the Council of 100, an influential group of business leaders, according to state records.
Key lawmakers who must approve the plan claimed to know little about it.
"I know (Crist) is working on something, but I haven't seen the details," said House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, who will soon start work as a vice president of development and planning at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville.
Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, who works at the University of South Florida, said universities need more money. "We're making it harder for Florida families to afford college," he said. "Everyone knows when the economy turns south, more and more people head to college. This is something we really need to talk about before we pass."
The proposed tuition changes would shift the burden of paying for the state's higher education system more toward students. Even Bright Futures scholarship recipients, who get state money to attend a state school because of good grades, would have to pay the higher fees.
The tuition hike also would be absorbed by those who bought prepaid tuition plans after July 1, 2007, which is similar to a law passed in 2007 that permitted the hike larger universities have made this year.
Universities face unprecedented financial pressures. With tuition rates capped and costs rising, schools have slashed undergraduate enrollment, cut academic programs, wiped out degree programs and laid off faculty members. Facing another year without a pay raise, many top professors are being lured elsewhere.
"This has to be a tough decision, but I think he's making it clear that Florida, in spite of these tough economic times, is finding a way to ensure we have a quality higher education system," said Florida A&M University president James Ammons, whose school would be eligible for higher tuition rates under the plan.
The group that lobbies the Legislature on behalf of students, the Florida Student Association, knew about the governor's tuition plan and says students are in a bind. They're concerned about tuition hikes, but they're also worried about the condition of the higher education system.
"The general sentiment is that tuition can go up. They understand it needs to go up," said Chris Krampert, FSA executive director. "But, it's a hail Mary giant leap forward, instead of taking a step forward."
Five universities got a head start on the tuition hike and will get to keep the 15 percent increase they were allowed to pass this year.
The plan calls for the Board of Governors to delegate the power to each university board of trustees to figure out how much of the tuition hike they plan to charge, the draft memo said. They could raise tuition 15 percent a year, as long as the increase doesn't exceed 40 percent in three years.
Tuition at Florida's 11 state universities is among the lowest in the nation, from $3,400 to about $4,000 a year for in-state students. The Bright Futures scholarship program, which is not based on financial need, is growing faster than the state can pay for it. Bright Futures is supported via the lottery, which has seen a drop in ticket sales as Florida residents have less discretionary money.
Higher education advocates who have heard of such plans say they approve, especially having state-funded Bright Futures scholarship recipients pay the higher rate as well.
"I applaud the governor for dealing with this, especially in a tight budget year," said Steve Uhlfedler, an education advocate and former Florida State University trustee.
Reporter Alex Leary contributed to this report. Jennifer Liberto can be reached at email@example.com.