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As USF leaders wrestle with budget cuts, students protest outside

As University of South Florida leaders tried to come to terms with the massive budget cuts on the way from the Legislature,students marched outside with the same frustrations.

"The students, united, will never be defeated," they chanted -- about 75 of them in all. During the rally, students were encouraged to contact their elected officials to spread the message: stop attacking higher education.

That was the same call to action happening at the same time inside the Marshall Student Center, where USF's Board of Trustees talked about the dire implications that impending budget cuts could have at the school.

This year will be the fifth year in a row the Legislature has cut funding to higher education. Cumulatively over the past four years, the total cut adds up to 25 percent. This year's cuts, alone, are expected to be close to that amount, bringing the five-year total closer to 50 percent.

Meanwhile, tuition has gone up 15 percent per year in the same time period -- as the students pointed out through their bullhorns.

Those tuition hikes were made possible through a program known as tuition differential. Universities are allowed to raise tuition beyond the Legislature's increases to the tuition base, so long as the total increase does not exceed 15 percent per year. The intention for that "differential" boost was to give universities extra "educational enhancement" money. It was supposed to make students' classes smaller, help universities recruit world-class faculty and generally make the academic experience better.

Instead, it's been used to help fill the ever-growing gap in state funding. And it hasn't even come close.

This year the House and Senate are not recommending any increases to base tuition, leaving universities with the option to raise the full 15 percent themselves. And lawmakers assume they'll do just that, factoring in that speculative extra revenue in the universities' total budget plans -- even before universities have a chance to consider whether raising prices is a good idea.

But is there any question that universities won't go for the full hike? With state support so scarce, what else could they do?

"We are being put in the position of having no choice but to raise tuition," said USF Board of Trustees chairman John Ramil. "We are kind of caught in the middle."

The House and Senate are still working out how to divvy up $300 million in one-time cuts to the state university system that the two chambers have agreed to. Lawmakers are expecting universities to use their reserve funds to make up for the loss.

That's not fair either, university leaders say.

While those reserves may seem uncommitted from the outside, inside the university they're earmarked for all sorts of important things, said USF's chief operating officer, John Long. By the end of the year, USF expects that the $100 million in reserves it started with in January will be down to about $76 million. And out of that money, there are still a lot of things USF hoped to fund with it. A few examples: 

  • $6.5 million for summer school, which is not funded by the Legislature
  • $4.3 million for the library's e-resources
  • $4.6 million for faculty start-up packages
  • $10 million for campus infrastructure maintenance

Plus, by state law, the university must keep 5 percent of those reserves on hand. USF's Board of Trustees requires another 3 percent set aside, totaling $18 million, Long said. 

The House and Senate are expected to continue budget talks tonight, hopefully wrapping things up by the end of the weekend.

(Photo: Times Staff Writer Daniel Wallace)