Florida's retreat on investing in public higher education is now crystal clear: For the first time, students at the University of South Florida and other public universities are expected to pay more than half the cost of their education due to shrinking state support. A carte blanche tuition bill sitting on Gov. Rick Scott's desk that would grant the University of Florida and Florida State University — and eventually more universities — the autonomy to raise tuition undercuts even the pretense of an accessible, coordinated higher education system. It's understandable why universities tired of lawmakers' broken promises would seek more autonomy to raise money, but that would only let the Legislature off the hook and unfairly burden families. Florida's students deserve better, and the governor should veto HB 7129.
For decades, university tuition prices in Florida have been far below the national average, robbing the system of resources to distinguish itself. Finally, lawmakers in recent years have taken steps to ameliorate that deficit, approving manageable annual tuition increases of up to 15 percent. But at the same time, the Republican-led Legislature — despite empty rhetoric about the importance of higher education in the state's economic future — has dramatically decreased the state's financial commitment. That's left students paying higher prices for lower quality. Next year alone, lawmakers, with Scott's approval, cut another $300 million in state support and required universities to use $150 million from reserves to offset the cut.
Against that reality, the so-called pre-eminence bill is the universities' attempt to gain more control over their funding and future. The bill would allow universities that meet certain performance benchmarks — currently only UF and FSU among the state's 11 public universities — to set their tuition at the market rate, whatever that is, subject to approval by the university system's Board of Governors. The national average for public universities is about $8,250, about $2,500 more than current UF tuition. Both universities have promised any of the added tuition, which would begin with freshmen in 2013, would go to improving students' on-campus experiences.
But raising tuition roughly 45 percent virtually overnight is not sound policy and is unreasonable. It also isn't wise to create, in effect, a two-tier system of universities on the fly. This bill is just one more stopgap gimmick trying to compensate for the state's lack of commitment to higher education.
This is the Florida Lottery scam all over again. Lawmakers from both political parties have used lottery dollars to offset, not enhance, public education. It's not hard to imagine that once UF and FSU raise more money through tuition, the shortsighted Republican leaders so opposed to raising any additional state revenue will have even less compunction about further reducing taxpayer support.
College tuition in Florida needs to increase, and universities are starving for more money after years of spending cuts. But the state also needs to invest more and avoid shifting too much of the burden onto the backs of students. Scott should veto this bill and pursue a more comprehensive approach to paying for quality higher education.