University tuition fight comes to an end, leaving both sides unsatisfied

Jun 22, 2012

A months-long debate between Florida Governor Rick Scott and the state’s public universities over tuition increases came to a head this week, and the result disappointed both sides.

Once upon a time, and not too long ago, the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s public universities, simply co-signed the schools’ requests to raise tuition. The process was simple, smooth and in past years, done with little debate. But not this time.

This year the board picked apart the schools’ tuition requests, at times pulling numbers seemingly out of thin air. Board of Governors Chairman Dean Colson found himself acting as an auctioneer as his board haggled over how big a tuition increase each state university should get.  The process was long and fraught with tension, leading board member Ava Parker to say, “one could certainly say there’s never been a method to our madness, but there’s certainly not a method to our madness right now.”   

The process for deciding how much to let schools raise tuition revealed just how divided the Board is. Its newest members—those appointed by Governor Rick Scott—largely voted “no” for ANY increase in any amount

The Governor had addressed the board earlier in the week saying he wants tuition to remain low.

 “They’ve raised tuition on average 71-percent in four years. And you can pick up almost any paper and see how much debt these students have at a time when it’s difficult to get a job. So ‘ll be surprised if there are significant tuition increases,” Scott told reporters after addressing the board.

For the past several months Scott has been saying that he doesn’t support tuition hikes at Florida’s public universities. The University system has lost 45-percent of its state-based funding over the past few years, and tuition hikes only make up about 35 cents every $1 lost. As a result of the cuts, universities have cut programs and laid off faculty and staff.  

It costs about $5,500 a year for a full-time student to attend a Florida university, and the state has the 45th LOWEST tuition rate in the nation. Still, students like Jana Beasley, who plans on transferring to Florida State University from Tallahassee Community College in the fall, say the tuition hikes have her worried about whether she’ll be able to afford her tuition.

 “My greatest concern is having to be held back due to not having enough finances or something like that for not getting Bright Futures or having Florida pre-paid.”   

Beasley’s education will be subsidized by student loans and federal grants. She said right now, her pell grant pays for most of her college costs, but she’s concerned that it won’t stretch as far once she gets at FSU, where her tuition will nearly double over what she pays at TCC.

Other students though, don’t think the tuition increases are as big a deal as they are being made out to be.

 “Florida students are used to paying next to nothing for college compared to what other states pay for. The outrage is understandable. But I think it’s a bit misplaced,” said Harris Kneeland, a Political Science major in his last semester at Florida State University. Kneeland’s tuition has been paid for through a pre-paid plan his parents set up for him as a child. He plans to go on to a graduate program, where a partial scholarship will still leave him with about $50,000 in student loans that he estimates he’ll have to take out.

The split between the students mirrored the split between members of the Florida Board of Governors, who had to sign off on the increases. A vote for a 15-percent tuition increase at Florida State University failed.

The board came back and tried a 14-percent hike, and that failed too.

“That’s an amazing message to the faculty and the students that the ranked universities in the state, and the research universities in the state, will get the least resources to advance students,” said FSU President Eric Barron after the board voted down a 14-percent rate hike for the school. “Those are the universities that are supposed to keep the best and brightest students in the state.”

A clearly frustrated Barron scolded the board, leading one member to reverse his earlier “no” vote.

A single switch got FSU a 13-percent tuition increase. In the end, all schools that requested a price hike, got it, but for some—whose balance sheets have fallen below state mandated levels due to budget cuts -- it wasn’t what they needed. After the votes, Governor Scott weighed in again, saying he was disappointed by board’s decisions.