It's taken some time, but Gov. Charlie Crist is coming around on the importance of higher education to Florida's future. The governor's proposal to give all 11 state universities the power to raise tuition by up to 15 percent a year is a step in the right direction. But it should come with a warning label: The money from the tuition increases cannot be used by legislators to replace general tax dollars.
For families with teens headed to college or already there, the timing for tuition increases is not the best. Costs for everything from property insurance to health care are steep. Retirement accounts, home equity and other investments are dropping. The state unemployment rate has risen to 7 percent, the highest in 15 years. But sometimes it takes a crisis for government to start tackling the tough issues.
Florida never will realize its potential and Floridians will never be competitive for high-wage jobs if the state's university system is allowed to continue to slip. Only the University of Florida ranks among the top 50 universities, and the state ranks near the bottom in the production of bachelor's degrees. The economic crisis and declining tax revenues already have forced more than $130-million in cuts to universities since last year, and faculty members are fleeing to North Carolina and other states with stronger commitments to higher education. As college applications continue to rise, the universities have been forced to reduce staff, freeze or reduce enrollments and increase class sizes. It is not a prescription for success.
Business leaders who form the Council of 100 and other business organizations have called for higher tuition and greater public investment for years. Yet Crist vetoed a modest 5 percent tuition increase just last year. After heavy lobbying from business groups and others, he finally signed a general tuition increase and a premium increase of up to 15 percent for five of the largest universities, including the University of Florida, Florida State and the University of South Florida. As Crist says, his thinking has evolved, and that's good.
Now Crist proposes extending that tuition flexibility to the rest of the state's universities. His plan could raise as much as $1.5-billion over seven years, and it has several important caveats. At least 30 percent of the money from the tuition increases would have to be earmarked for need-based financial aid, an area that badly needs additional funding. Second, the increases would not be covered by Bright Futures Scholarships. Bright Futures has turned into a middle-class entitlement program that costs the state $436-million this year, and it has helped keep tuition artificially low. More than 9 of every 10 in-state freshmen at UF and FSU are on Bright Futures, and legislators are going to have to work up the nerve to rein it in.
Whether Crist can convince legislators to give up their legal fight over who has the authority to set tuition is one issue. Another is the concern raised by former Gov. Bob Graham and others that lawmakers will use the tuition increases as cover to shift general tax dollars elsewhere, just as the lottery wound up supplanting rather than enhancing public education money. That bait-and-switch cannot be allowed to happen again.
Universities cannot be slowly starved to death. Crist's proposal throws them a badly needed lifeline. If lawmakers follow through and embrace its intent, the additional money would help higher education start recovering from years of neglect.