It's heartening to see business interests in unison supporting a much-needed tuition hike for Florida's 11 public universities. The backing of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries, TaxWatch and the Council of 100 will make it far easier for the Republican-controlled Legislature to do what has been needed for years: To move Florida's tuition closer to the national norm. But if the influential and powerful lobbying bloc is truly serious about reforming Florida higher education for the 21st century, the work is far from done. The business community now needs to lobby lawmakers to increase the state's investment in higher education, including helping find the money to do so.
The plan before the Legislature is to extend to all 11 universities a differential tuition policy first created two years ago for some of the universities. It would allow each state university the discretion to increase tuition up to 15 percent each year. It will cause hardship to some of the system's nearly 300,000 undergraduates in these tight economic times, even though 30 percent of the increased tuition would be dedicated to need-based financial aid. The state's popular merit-based Bright Futures scholarship will diminish in value because it will cover only the base tuition — not the discretionary tuition each institution sets. But there is a tentative deal to hold harmless students who purchased a Florida Prepaid Tuition Plan before July 1, 2007.
Even so, the differential tuition plan is a pittance of what Florida's universities need to become what bill sponsor Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, hopes will be "the best university system in the country." The tuition hikes won't even stanch the bleeding from the past two years when state lawmakers cut $287 million from a higher education budget that was already lean by national standards.
If every state university raised its undergraduate tuition 15 percent for 2009-10, it would raise just $72 million. Another $155 million from the federal stimulus package is expected to significantly narrow the remaining gap this year and next. But that is just a Band-Aid for a system that has already lost several prominent academics to states with better higher education investment.
Business leaders now champion investing in higher education to diversify the state economy beyond tourism, agriculture and construction. The next step, then, is pressuring lawmakers to find the money — and supporting those revenue options when they're found.
That's not happening much in Tallahassee these days. Industries, individually and collectively, have been among the biggest barriers this session for proposals aimed at broadening Florida's tax base, be it taxing services, repealing sales tax exemptions or collecting sales tax on Internet sales. The House has so far rejected revenue enhancements. And the Senate's own plans aren't as ambitious as they would need to be to truly expand Florida's higher education commitment. The system needs more money. Helping to find it should be the business lobby's next priority.