Sending kids to college should be affordable for Florida families and should not require assuming a mountain of debt. But there are ways to help students without starving universities' budgets and cheapening the value of a degree. Gov. Rick Scott is intent on controlling costs without significant state investment, while Senate leaders are offering more balanced solutions.
The governor has outlined his plan to save students money and help them graduate in four years, which saves both students and the state money. But to do it he wants to freeze tuition at state colleges — university tuition is already frozen — and cap fees at both colleges and universities. It's a skimpy fix that fails to address the broader picture. Average in-state tuition at Florida universities runs about $6,000 a year, less than a third of the total $21,000 cost of attendance that includes technology, books, room and board. What's more, Florida tuition is well below the national average of $9,650. Scott, who frequently preaches the gospel of keeping Florida competitive, is essentially telling universities to make do, which is no way to run a world-class university system that turns out career-ready graduates.
Some of the governor's other proposals make good sense. Scott would allow the merit-based Bright Futures Scholarship to apply to summer credit hours. Now the scholarships can only be used during the fall and spring semesters, an unfair rule given that Florida students are required to complete at least nine summer credit hours. He also wants to eliminate sales taxes on required textbooks. That translates to about $60 a year for a full-time student, which isn't nothing.
The Senate offers a more balanced approach. Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has filed legislation that would give more financial leverage for universities to retain faculty, improve graduate programs and fix aging buildings; expand some state scholarship and financial aid programs; and require universities to create block tuition policies that set a fixed price for a full course load with money-saving incentives to help students complete their degrees faster. Galvano also would expand Bright Futures to cover the entire cost of tuition and fees, including summer classes, but only for the program's top achievers, which is about half of Bright Futures recipients. These improvements would be covered by Senate President Joe Negron's initiative to increase spending on higher education by $1 billion over the next two years. On the cost-saving side, the legislation, SB 2, would tighten the metrics on the state's graduation rate goals, with four years being the target. Now just 44 percent of students graduate from Florida universities in four years, a definite area for improvement.
Ensuring college affordability is a priority that must be coupled with maintaining a top-notch public higher education system. Tuition rates in Florida reflect a neglect of that latter mission, and Scott's proposal to refuse to let colleges and universities raise tuition even a modest amount is shortsighted. Helping students while also investing in Florida's colleges and universities is the better way forward.