Tuition hike means USF students paying for greater share of their education than state

Published April 20, 2012

TAMPA — The difference is less than a percentage point, but it ushers in a new era in higher education in Florida.

For the first time, University of South Florida students will pay more than half of the cost of their college education next year as tuition rises and the state's contribution continues to decline.

It's a shift that's likely to be mirrored across the state.

"The signals emanating from Tallahassee are very clear," USF provost Ralph Wilcox told members of the university's board of trustees at a meeting Thursday. "There appears to be no interest in meaningful investment in higher education in the state of Florida."

For years, state leaders pushed programs like the Florida Prepaid College Fund and Bright Futures Scholarships that aimed at getting more students into state universities. Now the cost of college is more on the backs of students than ever, with state support dropping at an even faster rate. That includes a $300 million systemwide cut in Florida's 2012-13 state budget that was signed into law this week by Gov. Rick Scott.

Even if tuition goes up another 15 percent next year, the amount USF and other schools will likely seek from the Florida Board of Governors this summer, students are increasingly getting less for their money.

"I don't appreciate it," said Susan Edgerley of Westchase, whose daughter Liz just began as a freshman at the University of Florida. "In fact, should they call it a state (university)? At this point, I don't know."

In the days Scott spent traversing the state touting the budget that gave $1 billion to K-12 education, folks in the higher education world have been trying to figure out how to deal with the massive cut coming their way.

At USF it could mean larger classes, fewer of them, and fewer taught by full-time professors, Wilcox told trustees. It could mean a longer time to graduate and more time spent racking up student debt.

"We're really headed toward a train wreck," said USF trustee Gene Engle.

It's the same story at other universities.

At UF, for instance, engineering students have spent the past couple of weeks protesting a proposal to eliminate a computer and information science engineering program and merge it with another department — an attempt, says the engineering dean, to try to deal with a $4 million cut to that department this year alone.

"It's painful," said the dean, Cammy Abernathy.

Nobody likes tuition increases on top of all that, but for now, they are widely seen as necessary evils.

Meanwhile, a bill waits on Gov. Scott's desk that would allow top universities — currently just UF and Florida State University — to seek unlimited tuition increases, provided they meet about a dozen performance benchmarks that would contribute to "excellence."

That sounds a lot like the idea a few years ago, when state leaders approved a program known as "tuition differential" that allows total tuition increases of up to 15 percent a year. That program went into effect in 2008, under the banner that the extra money would be used to enhance students' education.

But in the same time period, state support has decreased by about half, with extra tuition money coming nowhere close to filling the gap.

In 1990, general tax revenues funded 71 percent of per-student costs while tuition covered 18 percent. In 2010, taxes funded 49 percent of per-student costs while tuition covered 40 percent.

"I had always hoped that the increases in tuition could be used to fund excellence," said Board of Governors chair Dean Colson. "Instead, because of the bad economy, the increases have been used to keep the system afloat. Going forward, that must change."

Mark Snellgrove, a father of three kids in Carrollwood, ages 10, 14 and 15, said he got his youngest daughter into a career academy program with hopes that she'll have a better chance at a scholarship. That becomes more important each year, with each new tuition hike.

"I paid for my own college," Snellgrove said. "But I don't know, it's getting more difficult to afford. And now it's a minimum if you want to succeed."

It's those folks whom Wilcox worries about. At this point, he says, with students and parents making the bigger investment, universities should do everything they can to be more accountable and accessible to them.

With that kind of shift comes a strained partnership with the Legislature. "The burden has shifted beyond that midline," Wilcox said. "And the likelihood is that the needle is never going to shift back."

Other states, he said, have experienced the same phenomenon: Vermont, Colorado, Michigan.

Sherman Dorn, a USF education professor who has written about the shift on his blog, said "Florida is still well below the national average."

But, Dorn said, cuts in state funding in recent years mean that Florida is catching up fast. "If there is a single public university in Florida that is below 50 percent, they will be above it next year."

Times staff writers Marlene Sokol and Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at or (813) 226-3337.