Gov. Rick Scott's obsession with stopping even small tuition increases at state universities is more about politics than building a higher education system that meets Florida's needs and ambitions. Two universities' boards of trustees have demonstrated their independence by voting to accept a small inflation adjustment and standing up to the micromanaging governor's pressure. More universities' boards should follow the state law and do the same. It's clearly up to the university trustees to focus on the long-term needs of higher education while the governor pursues his short-term goal of re-election.
The trustees for the University of Florida and Florida State University voted last week to ignore Scott's shortsighted opposition and accept a small, 1.7 percent increase in tuition, based on inflation, as required by a 2007 state law. The law has not been triggered before because larger tuition increases have been written into previous state budgets or were approved by the university system's Board of Governors. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have said the universities must accept the inflation adjustment. Scott has contended otherwise, once again meddling where he should be leading.
There are some real problems in Florida's university system, many of which can be tied to anemic funding: exiting faculty; crowded classrooms; outdated facilities; and class scheduling issues that can mean students linger to finish their degrees, which increases student cost when they have to pay for another semester or two. Tuition, which remains lower than in 39 other states, is not nearly the problem Scott wants to make it. It accounts for a small portion of what a student actually ends up paying. Living expenses account for far more, and the state's lottery-funded Bright Futures program offsets all or most tuition costs for many Florida families. If Scott is really worried about college access, he should push to increase need-based financial aid, not insist that universities continue to operate on the cheap.
In Florida, students spend more on tuition but attend universities that often have less to offer because of severe state funding cuts. The Republican-led Legislature understands that the system needs more resources. It restored $300 million in funding for 2013-14 that it had cut just a year before. It also voted to modestly raise tuition, only to see Scott veto it for a second year. As a result, Florida universities will spend significantly less per student next year than they did just three years ago. Annual tuition may have grown by about $2,000 over the past five years (though it is still below the national average), but the state subsidy has shrunk so much that universities actually had 11 percent less — $1,232 — to spend per student in 2012-13 than in 2007-08.
That statistic clearly isn't part of Scott's re-election plans. The Palm Beach Post reported that Scott's Let's Get to Work committee has been using the specter of tuition increases to solicit contributions. That's easy retail politicking but poor gubernatorial leadership. Scott's job is to see the broader picture and rely on his appointees to the Board of Governors and the 12 universities' Boards of Trustees to manage higher education.