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Published Feb. 11, 2008

Those in Tallahassee who deplore an 8 percent tuition increase are being spiteful to public universities or willfully missing the point. The meager tuition is but a symptom of the financial disease in Florida higher education - and young, eager, prepared students are about to suffer in historic numbers.

Yes, the university system Board of Governors has once again challenged the Legislature's authority and decided to bump up tuitions in the fall by 8 percent for a potential increase to students of $186 each year. But the overheated reaction from Senate President Ken Pruitt, who said large tuition increases could "destroy the prepaid college tuition program," only serves to underscore the disconnect in the Capitol.

What good is a viable prepaid program if students can't get in to the universities?

The university board, at the same meeting last month in which it voted to increase tuition, was also treated to a numbing analysis of the higher education budget. Over the past 18 years, through times of both economic prosperity and turmoil, the trend has continued steadily downward. A state that once invested $14,039 to educate each university student is now, adjusted for inflation, spending $10,728. It has the lowest tuition and the highest student-faculty ratio in the nation and continues to lose professors to other states.

Says university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg: "We are slowing down as a system and, in essence, we are running out of gas."

Look around, lawmakers. Prepaid tuition may be the least of the problems in higher education. The University of Florida is staring at a $47-million reduction next year and Florida State University is already planning to lay off 200 employees. Freshman enrollment has been frozen at every university and some are planning to go further and reduce the overall number of students they serve. These same universities may not be able to maintain the longstanding commitment to accept students who complete two years at a community college.

Make no mistake. These kind of reductions will leave thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of students out in the cold. And lawmakers can't simply blame the current economic downturn. They have been cheating university budgets even when state revenues were soaring. They have cut taxes in years when universities were told to accept more students with no extra money. As recently as a decade ago, a tax that was levied mostly on wealthy stock investors produced $1-billion. But lawmakers abolished it altogether. What could that money do today to help universities?

The university board of governors, made up largely of business people who were appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, is taking the only responsible course at this point. It is drawing the line between quality and quantity, and saying it will no longer cheat all students by accepting new ones for whom the state does not pay. "We cannot," says board member Tico Perez, "continue to do more with less."

Gus Stavros, a Pinellas entrepreneur and philanthropist who has been generous to public education, goes further. Stavros is one of the board's newest members, appointed last year by Gov. Charlie Crist, and he told his colleagues: "We have to raise the tuition so that universities can go forward with their missions. We have the worst faculty-student ratio in the nation, we're 42nd for need-based aid. I'm embarrassed. I've never been involved in a mediocre system in my life until now."

This could be a defining moment in Florida higher education, and the board is doing its job. But raising tuition is only a part of this equation. The rest must be supplied by a governor and Legislature that have tried to pretend that great universities can be run on the cheap. That lie is about to slam the door to higher education.