When Kamaria Jackson started attending Florida A&M University a few years ago, her tuition bill was about $2,000 to $3,000 a semester. Nowadays it’s around $5,000. Her mother makes too much money to qualify for federal financial aid. And that means Jackson has had to pay for her education out-of-pocket.
“In me trying to reach my ultimate goal of becoming an education administrator, I’ve had to put off, semester after semester, my progression through my curriculum, through my program. And I have to choose every semester, will I go to school or will I work full time?” She said.
And other students say their graduation is being delayed by a lack of course offerings.
"The availability of classes has decreased tremendously. A lot of classes are only available online, which thus increases tuition more, because it’s more expensive to afford these resources. So, not only are students limited in the courses they’re allowed to take, but their instruction with teachers, because class sizes have tripled since I’ve been in the program," said Katherina Reekmans, a senior English major at Florida State University.
Those students and about 30 others, joined Democrats at a press conference to push back against tuition hikes and budget cuts. Over the past few years as the economy has struggled, state-based funding for Florida’s public universities has shrunk. Professors and staffers have been laid off and classes reduced. Entire degree programs have been eliminated and some students have had to switch majors and push back graduation. At the same time, tuition has been on the rise.
“Nothing reflects your values more than a budget. You can say what you care about. But in the end, however you take and spend your money, that tells you what you value," said Rod Smith, Chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.
This year the Republican-led legislature cut $300 million dollars from the state’s public university system. Smith’s concerns are echoed by former Democratic Governor Bob Graham, who says the state’s economy is directly tied to the quality of its public universities.
“We can’t continue down this course if we aspire to be a state that will be seen by young people as a state where they aspire to plant their personal flag.”
But despite years of hikes, Florida still has one of the lowest tuition rates in the nation.
The battle over tuition is being waged in the court of public opinion and Florida’s highest courtroom. Graham is also part of a tuition lawsuit now before the Florida Supreme Court. The case centers on whether the legislature, or the Florida Board of Governors which oversees the public universities, has the power to set tuition rates. Graham says tuition setting authority should rest with the Florida Board of Governors because he believes the legislature is too political.
“The great university systems in America have that authority vested in a non-political citizens board similar in composition to our Board of Governors," he said.
The attorney for Graham and the other plaintiffs say when the Board was created in 2002 through a constitutional amendment, the provision gave it, not the legislature, tuition authority. But during Supreme Court arguments on the matter, Justice Barbara Pariente seemed skeptical of that argument and said the issue may not be up to the court to decide.
“The power to set tuition and fees and collect those and decide how they’re expended, the judicial branch, which is a co-equal branch of government, has no control over that. That’s legislative," she said.
A ruling in the group's favor could drive tuition rates even higher and give the legislature a reason to decrease state support even more.
“It seems to me that you are asking for something that could come back to bite you," said Justice Peggy Quince.
The Florida Board of Governors was once a party to the lawsuit, but dropped out after reaching a deal with the legislature to share tuition authority. Two lower courts have sided with the legislature in the case. And regardless of the outcome of the case, public university students probably won’t see their tuition bills going down anytime soon.