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Florida college presidents: Don't raise tuition

Bucking the opinion held by Florida's university presidents, a panel of presidents from eight of the state's community colleges told the Florida House Education Committee that they oppose tuition hikes.

The discussion came a day after the House Appropriations Committee approved a budget that would hike tuition 8 percent. Under a program known as tuition differential, colleges and universities will have the option of implementing another 7 percent hike, bringing the total increase to 15 percent. That's what happened last year, and it's likely to happen again.

University presidents, who spoke before the Education Committee last week, said the tuition hike is crucial. Florida is nearly at the bottom nationwide in terms of tuition rates -- No. 45 out of 50 states. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, according to the Florida College leaders. And Gov. Rick Scott shares that belief.

"I think we would like to keep our doors open as best we can," Valencia College President Sanford Shugart told the committee. "We've been given the devil's choice of take a tuition increase, or just absorb the cut for five years."

Community college students are not in the same financial boat as university students, Shugart said. Many are non-traditional, taking classes later in life and trying to make ends meet on their own.

"We really need to start moderating tuition and investing in the system of public resources again," he said. "It's a public good."

In the past, state dollars funded about 75 percent of a student's education, with tuition dollars making up the 25 percent difference. But in recent years, that model has shifted to about 50-50.

"Differentiating tuition is a short-term solution to a resource matter that really needs a long-term solution," Shugart said. "Using it restricts access to those who need it most. Charging them more for that opportunity makes no sense to me." 

The other presidents agreed.

"I think that would certainly be catastrophic to us," said Palm Beach State College President Dennis Gallon. "Our students do not have the financial resources to be able to pay that high tuition."

But the colleges do need money. One major problem? Dual-enrollment. The colleges do not charge high-schoolers to take those courses, yet they do require resources -- and regular community college students are having to shoulder the burden.

"We are running a model that runs very contrary to logic," said Northwest Florida State College President Ty Handy. "We are willing to invest in dual enrollment, but when the investment is 100 percent, it's cost-prohibitive."

-- Kim Wilmath