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Despite heavy lobbying, Scott undecided on tuition hikes

Two university presidents seeking more flexibility to raise tuition made big promises to Gov. Rick Scott as they lobbied him Thursday to sign a bill giving them that power.

In response, a still undecided Scott fired off questions about how the extra money would help universities deliver on their pledges to fuel the economy and prepare more high-skilled graduates for the workforce.

The Tallahassee meeting in the Governor's cabinet room took place about a week before Scott has to act on HB 7129.

The bill, known as the preeminence bill, would require that universities meet 11 of 14 benchmarks -- like high research activity and high GPAs among incoming freshmen -- before they're able to raise tuition to the "market-rate." Right now only the University of Florida and Florida State University meet that threshold.

Presidents of both universities applauded the bill for that extra accountability. In addition to meeting the benchmarks, they'd also have to spell out how the extra dollars are spent and gain approval from their individual boards of trustees and the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system.

“It doesn’t make sense to charge the same price no matter what you deliver,” said FSU President Eric Barron.

Scott said he understands the need for improved education, but he’s also hearing from students and parents who are concerned about not being able to afford college.

“If we are going to spend more money in an area, if we are going to expect our students and our families to spend more money, what are we going to get for it?” he told reporters after the meeting. “That’s what’s going to be important for families.”

Nobody mentioned the $300 million cut in higher education funding that lawmakers put in their budget last month. Pending Scott's signature, it'll be the fifth year in a row the Legislature slashed state support to universities -- a total cut of about 50 percent in state support over that time period.

Meanwhile, universities have already been raising tuition steadily for the past several years.

Under a program called "tuition differential,", universities are allowed to ask the Board of Governors for tuition hikes beyond whatever amount the Legislature hikes it each year, so long as the total increase does not exceed 15 percent per year.

Since the program began in 2008, average tuition at the state's 11 institutions has risen from about $88 per credit hour to $119.

Still, Florida's university system remains among the cheapest in the country, ranking No. 45 out of all 50 states. Tuition and fees here total about $5,800, while the national average hangs above $8,000.

UF President Bernie Machen has said he would aim for the national average starting with 2013's incoming freshmen. Machen would keep that tuition rate flat for those students for four years, adding an extra incentive for them to graduate on time. He said he wants to use the money to hire more faculty.

Barron hasn't said how much he hopes to increase tuition, but he said the extra money would go to programs to train entrepreneurs and meet the state’s push for graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

Critics fear further hikes could put higher education out of reach for low-income students.

The presidents and Board of Governors former chairwoman Ava Parker promised Scott that any increases would be coupled with more opportunities for financial aid.

"For those families that are interested in participating, we will have the dollars in place so they can have those opportunities," Parker said.

--Kim Wilmath and Brittany Alana Davis