By Ellen McHugh and Lydia Fiser
Florida lawmakers voted to cut $300 million in funding to state universities during the 2012 Legislative Session this spring.
UF will take a hit of about $36.5 million out of that total, leaving it up to tuition-paying students to make up the difference.
State universities have been raising tuition for the last five years due to continuing cuts in state funding. This year’s undergraduate tuition at UF is $188.55 per credit hour, but just four years ago it was at $108.55. Based on the average of 30 credit hours in two semesters, that’s a jump from $3,256.50 to $5,656.50 a school year.
In the past, the State University System capped these increases at 15 percent per school year. But a new bill (SB1752/HB7129) passed during the 2012 Legislative Session would allow universities to surpass that limit, raising tuition to “market rates.” Considering UF is about 30 percent cheaper than the national average, ranked seventh on the Princeton Review’s 2012 Best Value Colleges list, this would be a major change for the university.
While this bill was passed during the same legislative session that funding was cut from the university system, they’re not exactly interconnected. The reasoning behind this bill isn’t to make up for lost state funding, according to lawmakers and the Board of Governors. The bill states their main purpose is to “elevate the academic and research excellence and national preeminence of the highest performing state research universities.”
“Highest performing” means that it wouldn’t apply to all state universities, only those that meet at least 11 of the 14 benchmarks set by the bill. UF meets 13 based on factors like selectivity, graduation rates and research.
The tuition increase also likely wouldn’t apply to all students at UF. The bill allows for “differentiated tuition,” which translates to mean higher tuition for majors that are expected to contribute to the growth of a state economy built on high-wage jobs. The bill doesn’t specify which majors those are, but alludes to them being science- and technology-based.
In return for paying higher tuition, the university – following the guidance of The Board of Governors – would aim to improve the education offered to students in these areas. The ultimate goal, according to the bill, is to push the university higher up in national rankings.
Although the bill passed both the state house and senate during the legislative session, in order to become law, Gov. Rick Scott must sign it. He said in the past that he “doesn’t believe in tuition increases,” but he is still undecided on this increase.
Student groups and activists say students are already cash-strapped enough and are fighting the bill all the way to Scott’s desk. But university officials aiming to make UF a nationally competitive university see this as an opportunity to improve the school and become more competitive in price and education.
If passed, UF president Bernie Machen has said that he hopes to raise tuition up to 40 percent to reach the national average. This would put UF on par with schools like the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan, both roughly $7,000 a year. However, he said he would wait until fall 2013 to implement those numbers, and only for incoming freshmen, in order to give families who may be considering UF a year to find a way to bridge the new 40 percent gap.
Even if Scott doesn’t sign the bill into law, students will still face increased tuition in the upcoming school year similar to recent years.
These annual tuition increases have been and will continue to be a strain on families and students as they try to pay for the rising cost of a college education.
Graham Picklesimer, co-president of Graduate Assistants United, pointed out that even if lawmakers continue to raise tuition, it won’t be able to keep up with state budget cuts.
The days when the state gave out textbook stipends are long gone. With it also goes a time when students could graduate from UF debt-free, one of the charms of a state university known for being affordable.
In the recent past, the state promised high school students that if they earned good grades, they would be guaranteed an in-state college education that Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship would cover at either 100 percent (Florida Academic Scholars) or 75 percent (Florida Medallion Scholars), based on academic standing.
Then in 2009, the scholarship program was amended to cover a flat rate instead of a percentage. Now, with pending tuition increases, that flat rate will likely cover less than half of tuition costs for even its highest merit recipients.
In addition, the state cut 5 percent of Bright Futures’ funding for the 2012-2013 school year as well as set higher standards for current college students to meet in order to renew their scholarships in upcoming years. The current GPA requirement for students to renew at the FAS level is a 3.0. Next year it will be a 3.25, and the following year a 3.5. For FMS, the GPA requirement will rise from a 2.75 to 3.0.
As Bright Futures scholarships flounder, other financial aid programs like Florida Prepaid are struggling to predict future costs due to the constant fluctuation in tuition. This is making planning harder for parents who try to budget for their children’s future college tuition.
So, are all these changes worth it? Is it understandable for lawmakers to raise tuition in order to improve the quality of state universities while at the same time chopping away education’s share of the state budget? Or is it better to keep tuition costs low in order to maintain accessible higher education for in-state students?
Join the conversation and tell us what you think by commenting below.
Info graphic by Lydia Fiser and Kelley Antoniazzi.