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Student leaders back freedom to raise tuition by 10 percent

Florida public universities want the freedom to raise student tuition by up to 10 percent, and student leaders don't seem quite sure what to think about it.

The Florida Student Association, composed of student government representatives from all nine state universities, supported the plan, then opposed it, then came around this week to supporting it again.

Oddly enough, the concession that students won Monday from state Chancellor Charles Reed _ a reiteration of the so-called 25 percent rule _ will have no effect on the new student fee, known as "differential tuition."

Student lobbyists say they knew that. But they wanted to keep the rule anyway, at least as a philosophical guide for the future.

On the surface, the 25 percent rule seems to imply that students will pay no more than 25 percent of the cost of their educations (the state is supposed to pick up the other 75 percent). As a practical matter, though, students already pay more than 25 percent, thanks to several years of cutbacks from the taxpayers.

Many people misunderstand the 25 percent rule, supposing it to be some kind of ceiling. In fact, it's more like a floor. It works like this: If tuition ever dips below the 25 percent mark, then the university system can raise it automatically without a vote of the Legislature. After the rule took effect in 1991, that never happened because tuition never dipped below 25 percent.

In other words, the rule allows the university system to raise tuition up to the 25 percent mark, but it does not restrict the Legislature from setting it higher, which in fact it did. (The current figure is about 28 percent.)

This year's tuition proposal is something entirely different.

Base tuition _ the rate set by legislators and charged by all nine universities _ would stay the same. But each university would have the option of imposing up to a 10 percent tuition surcharge, or discounting tuition by a similar amount, if that's what a university wants to do to attract more students.

Unlike base tuition, which is gathered into a statewide pool, this new money would stay with the campus that collects it. A committee composed equally of students and administrators would decide how to spend it. Reed and other university leaders say local flexibility and control are the plan's main virtue. Reed expects about seven of the nine universities to raise their tuitions.

Some student leaders also support differential tuition, saying the money will improve course availability, among other things. (Florida tuition is low by national standards.) The Florida Student Association endorsed the plan, so long as students were given equal weight on the local spending committees. Sharon Lettman, the association's executive director, said legislators would have approved the plan whether students supported it or not. Better to support it, she said, and win some student control over how the money is spent.

But student leaders at two universities _ North Florida and West Florida _ withdrew from the association in protest.

At the University of South Florida, where the student newspaper strongly has opposed differential tuition, student government president Jim Johnson has supported it, for the same reasons Lettman gave.

But Johnson also conditioned his support to saving the 25 percent rule. When Reed told legislators last week that the rule should be abolished, Johnson and other association members got upset. Then Reed met with the student association Monday and promised to support the rule. The students renewed their support for differential tuition.

The concession didn't cost Reed anything. As it happens, the 25 percent rule is written into a different part of state law from the section that allows differential tuition.