The chancellor of Florida's public university system wants to abandon a long commitment to students that limits tuition to 25 percent of the cost of their educations.
Florida tuition is low by national standards, Chancellor Charles Reed says.
But more importantly, support from state taxpayers has eroded sharply in recent years. So the universities must do as many other government services are doing: Make primary users pay more.
"I'm not going to pay any attention to the (25-percent) statute. I think it's all open," Reed said during a budget planning session with the 10 university presidents Tuesday.
In fact, the 25-percent law already is little more than an unmet policy goal. The law restricts only the universities' Board of Regents from raising tuition above that mark without legislative approval. The Legislature can _ and recently has _ set tuition higher than that.
But 25 percent has been an important target among student leaders and others who believe a university education should be mostly subsidized by the state. The rule was put into law in 1991. Student leaders have gotten Reed to recommit to the 25 percent policy several times since then.
Now he says the policy is out of date.
Public university students in Virginia pay 60 percent of the cost of their educations, Reed said. In South Carolina, it's between 40 and 45 percent. Even North Carolina and Texas, long known for heavily subsidizing state universities, have started asking students to pay more.
And Florida put a relatively higher burden on students in the 1970s than it does now, Reed said. Keeping tuition low "doesn't hardly seem right in a time when the reality is, there's no tax revenue coming in. We have to turn to other sources for financing these public goods."
Earlier in the meeting, Reed distributed some budget projections that showed a $1.2-billion deficit for state government as a whole in 1996-97, and a $2.6-billion deficit by three years after that. To help close the gap, legislative budget planners are now requiring all state agencies to match any new programs with comparable spending cuts.
The university presidents supported Reed's idea of looking elsewhere for funds.
"We have to recognize the decline of state revenue as a reliable financing source," University of Florida President John Lombardi said. "On the other hand, we shouldn't accept it as the end of higher education in Florida.
"There are significant other sources of non-tax revenues that we could do," Lombardi said, mentioning new products and services that universities might sell, in addition to charging higher tuition for regular students. New technologies, such as distance education, can also make universities more efficient, he said.
"Each of these are savings or new revenue streams. We need to generate as many of those as possible. That's a lot better than the scenario before us, which is, "die and like it,' " Lombardi said.
Reed and the presidents agreed to abandon their usual wish-list presentations in next month's budget session with the regents. Instead, they will ask the regents to consider what major changes in management and policy might help the universities prosper.
University supporters point out that not all students oppose higher tuition. Student leaders at most Florida universities, for example, endorsed a local tuition surcharge plan that would have directed any increase toward specific needs on that campus. The plan also included more financial aid for needy students. But the 1995 Legislature rejected it.
And the Postsecondary Education Planning Commission, an independent advisory board to the Legislature, governor and Cabinet, recommended last year that Florida abandon its artificially low tuition. Low rates actually subsidize the relatively well-off, who could afford to pay more, rather than the poor, the commission said.
But any tuition increases should be accompanied by corresponding increases in need-based financial aid, the commission said.