Florida's state funding of higher education and its university tuition rates are both far below the national average. For the state to build anything resembling a first-rate university system, it needs more money from both the Legislature and the students. It's a false choice to suggest otherwise, as the current debate in Tallahassee pretends.
University presidents were at the capital this week to float a request for $118 million in additional funding in the 2013-14 budget. That amount, not coincidentally, is equal to raising tuition by the maximum 15 percent allowable by state law. The money would be distributed among the 12 universities and tied to performance. And if the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott agreed to the plan, the universities would freeze tuition for the year.
At first blush, that might seem reasonable, as Florida has recently crossed the threshold where students pay more in tuition than the state pays in public money toward higher education. But it won't solve the universities' systemic money problem. Scott, who opposes tuition increases and recently pushed a plan for a $10,000 bachelor's degree at colleges, is too focused on price and not enough on value.
Starved for cash, universities will continue to face a brain drain of top talent as professors flee with their programs to better funded universities in other states. And students will continue to face the prospect of overcrowded classes, or sitting in the dorm rooms taking online classes, or constricted course offerings that might keep them from graduating on time. There is a great hidden cost there. A year at the University of South Florida, for example, costs more than $20,000 right now and, of that, only $4,500 is tuition. Having to delay graduation will cost that student nearly twice as much in extra housing and food as in tuition.
Investing smart money now will pay off in the long term. Sometimes that means the price must rise so the value of a degree — to both the student and the state — can rise even more. And that investment needs students and the Legislature to partner to both pay more now for greater returns in the future. The university presidents may be making a politically pragmatic offer, but it is not in the best interests of their students or the state.