Tuition hikes wear thin on students, administrators
TAMPA - When Florida lawmakers proposed steadily increasing university tuition until it hit the national average, students and university officials went along because they saw the promise of a better education. As expected, tuition jumped 15 percent year after year. But the other side of the deal — smaller class sizes, expanded course offerings, shorter lines at the registrar's office — never materialized. Students' "worst fears have been realized" as lawmakers imposed budget cuts along with tuition increases, said University of South Florida Provost Ralph Wilcox.He sees the same thing happening this year, with the Florida House of Representatives proposing more tuition increases and university budget cuts. The one difference is that Gov. Rick Scott has staked out a position against tuition increases. His 2012-13 budget would keep tuition flat, about $5,800 a year for a USF student, but keep university budgets flat, too. It's an improvement over the House approach, but Scott's position raises a question, Wilcox said. Are Floridians happy with the status quo? "If students, families and employers are satisfied with the current levels of access and the quality of a university education in the state," Wilcox said, "then we could certainly get by with a continuation budget and no tuition increase." But "we know a good number of students are moving out of the state" because they don't like what's happening at the public universities, he said. Once they're gone, they tend not to come back. "These are our best and brightest." For years, tuition in Florida was the lowest in the country. Then in 2009, the Legislature passed a bill that would allow Florida's public universities to increase tuition by up to 15 percent every year until it caught up with the national average. State Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, sponsored the bill and said at the time, "Our universities are stretched; there is a brain drain taking place. … If we don't do something, we're going to be faced with a second-tier university system." In each of the subsequent years, lawmakers increased tuition by 8 percent, leaving the universities the option to go up an additional 7 percent, to 15. They all did. The increases didn't make up for the budget cuts, Wilcox said. "We've tightened our belts" as enrollment hit an all-time high, Wilcox said. Meanwhile, state education officials talk about the need for Florida's universities to do more to boost the state economy and compete with the best universities in the country. "Efficiencies aren't going to get us there," he said. One thing that Scott's proposal does is stop, for now, the shift of higher education costs to families. Five years ago, students and their families paid about 25 percent of university teaching expenses and the state covered the rest. Now with tuition increases paired with state cuts, families are carrying more than 40 percent of the cost. Some students are leaving the state, but some are leaving school altogether. "I just can't make ends meet," said USF senior Corey Uhl. He already has about $28,000 in debt, he said. He has a Bright Futures scholarship, but lawmakers steadily have reduced what it covers, from 75 percent of tuition to about half. "I don't understand why we can't raise taxes somewhere a little bit and keep tuition low and keep all these amazing students in Florida," he said. State Rep. Rick Kriseman, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, says it's a matter of choices. "We keep hearing there's no money, there's no money," he said. "It's not true." The state could raise up to $4 billion by closing loopholes, for instance, and collecting money that some online companies already owe, he said. "But the leadership chooses not to do that." The university system's reputation is on the line, he said. Tuition remains comparatively low, so "it's the best deal there is. But it isn't going to be a great deal anymore if we keep creating larger classes and fail to retain top-quality professors." The Legislature's credibility is on the line, Wilcox said. Students are paying more and expect something for their money, he said. Instead, they're getting the same — "and in some cases less."
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