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STATE SCHOOLS SEEKING $200M

That's the yearly sum universities say they need to keep up.

Florida's universities exist for a reason: to provide a college education to all students in the state who are academically qualified.

With the economy slumping and universities hurting for dollars, the presidents of the schools say they're on the verge of not being able to fulfill that mission.

The presidents of Florida's 11 public universities on Thursday told House Speaker Marco Rubio that they're turning away academically qualified students because they simply don't have the space. And the undergraduate students already in the system are getting shortchanged too - because they're in classes far bigger than their peers in other states.

The presidents said $200-million more a year over the next five years would be sufficient to do what the universities are supposed to do. The money could be garnered through some combination of taxpayer dollars and tuition increases.

The presidents and state university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg proposed a compact with the state in which lawmakers would promise to give universities the money for the next few years and more freedom to spend it they way university officials see fit.

In return, the schools would guarantee certain benchmarks, such as a certain number of bachelor's degrees granted, or a certain amount of research performed or a particular national ranking in various categories like research dollars brought in.

"Other states are rapidly moving ahead of us," Rosenberg told Rubio. "And $200-million a year for five years would start to put us back in the game."

The plea came as several university presidents said they're looking at the worst budget situation they've ever seen. The possibility that the university system budget could be cut as much as 4 percent this year and more next year could lead to 2,500 faculty members being laid off, said Florida International University president Mitch Maidique.

The state already had the worst student-faculty ratio in the country.

"What we need is not 2,500 less, we need 2,500 more," Maidique said.

Maidique said FIU is turning away students with SAT scores above 1,100 and better than B averages.

It's not the best year to ask lawmakers for money. The state is in a budget crisis, with lawmakers looking at a $2.4-billion shortfall for this year and next.

Rubio, R-Miami, and Rep. Joe Pickens, who is the top education budget writer in the House, were receptive to the university proposal but didn't make any commitments.

University of Florida president Bernie Machen noted that part of the budget crisis could be eased if schools had more leeway to increase tuition for undergraduates, the way they do for graduate students.

The universities have asserted that authority, and the Board of Governors has voted to increase tuition by 8 percent next year, but whether the board has the authority to do that is an issue in a pending court case.

More faculty members to lower the 31-to-1 student-faculty ratio is the biggest priority for most of the universities. The national average ratio is 25-1.

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