The University of Florida and Florida State University are another step closer to charging higher tuition than the state's other schools. A bill that would give top universities power to set higher rates, provided that they meet certain benchmarks, was approved by the House education committee Tuesday. A similar bill was okayed by the Senate's higher education committee last week.
Tuition-setting flexibility has long been major goal for UF and FSU's presidents, who argue that that they should not be treated the same as other schools. They also argue that Florida is among the cheapest states in the country in terms of tuition, No. 45 out of 50 states.
The bills lay out 14 criteria, 11 of which the universities must meet to get that power, including having high average GPAs for incoming freshmen and having a number of faculty in national academies.
UF meets all 14. FSU is missing two: Its number of patents and its amount of medical school funding (which FSU President Eric Barron says they do not expect to meet because FSU does not have a university hospital.) But as the bills only require that 11 metrics are met, FSU would be able to charge higher rates, too.
FSU President Eric Barron and UF Provost Joe Glover thanked the committee for what they sees as a way to make their institutions more competitive nationally.
"By setting a group of metrics, you are driving the universities toward excellence," Barron said. "If there were a car manufacturer and you told the car manufacturer, 'I don't care what model you do, you have to charge the same price for it.' Pretty soon, all those cars are going to start to look alike."
"We believe this is very important to the future," Glover said. "We pledge we will exercise any authority you pass to us in a responsible matter."
The bill passed, but it was not without concerns.
Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said she would support the bill but urged the presidents to make sure they could still win out in a competition with other states' top research universities when their prices are more equitable.
Several other representatives took issue with the idea to put more funding responsibility on students while both the House and Senate are proposing cuts to their share of support.
"I've argued for a dedicated funding source for higher education," said Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami. "To date we haven't responded. We all acknowledge the need for a better educational environment. I have a hard time putting that burden on the students and on parents who are already struggling."
"I won't support funding anything on the backs of our students," said Martin Kiar, D-Davie.
The bill will still need to be approved by both full chambers and signed off by Gov. Rick Scott, who has said he does not believe in tuition increases. The Florida Board of Governors would also have to approve any individual schools' tuition hikes outside what the Legislature sets.
Students already have seen tuition increases the past six years — through base tuition increases approved by the Legislature and through a program known as "tuition differential," which allows universities to add to the base amount increased so long as the total does not exceed 15 percent per year. The original idea behind tuition differential sounded a lot like this new proposal: to differentiate certain universities that state leaders thought deserved to charge more. But over the past few years, that privilege has been extended to all 11 state universities.
This year, the House has recommended an 8 percent base tuition hike, leaving it up to the universities to ask for up to 7 percent more from the Board of Governors. The Senate did not recommend a base tuition increase for universities, leaving it up to them to ask for the full 15 percent hike. Meanwhile, the House proposed cutting higher education funding by 11 percent (prior to assumed revenues from tuition hikes), and the Senate wants to cut funding by 25 percent.