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Universities push back against governor's suggestion to limit tuition hikes

Gov. Rick Scott's suggestion that the Florida Board of Governors limit universities' tuition increases sent shudders through the higher education world.

"What I've asked our universities and our state colleges is, first, step back and do what Florida businesses have to do," Scott told reporters after the signing Tuesday, amid talk about the Florida College System's tuition increases, which are set at just 5 percent in the state budget. "What costs can we have and what costs don't make sense? I want all our state colleges and our universities to step back and say, are there costs we don't have to have?"

Reporters asked him whether he meant that universities should limit their tuition increases, normally allowed to rise up to 15 percent, to that same 5 percent. Scott said: "I'm very comfortable the Board of Governors will do that sort of review and the right thing will happen."

The Florida Board of Governors quickly put out a statement praising the Legislature for funding some university construction projects and for its cooperation with the board in setting accountability metrics -- even while cutting $300 million from the state university system. The statement included a note for media, saying the 5 percent tuition hike Scott was talking about applied just to Florida Colleges -- not universities.

Scott's office put out its own clarification soon after, stating that Scott's budget only includes 5 percent increases for state colleges, not universities. It does not address, however, whether Scott was suggesting that the Board of Governors follow suit with approving the same amount.

Why such a hot topic?

For the past five years, universities' budgets have been cut a total of about 50 percent. They've relied heavily on tuition hikes to try to make up at least some of the difference, even while it hasn't come close to filling the gap.

This year is no different.

The $300 million slash is coming quickly down the pike. Universities are expected to cover the losses with money in their reserve funds, but they say that money, though uncommitted externally, is used for many essential functions within the institution. 

Under a program known as "tuition differential," universities' boards of trustees are allowed to ask the Board of Governors for increases beyond whatever the Legislature hikes, so long as the total increase does not exceed 15 percent per year. This year, with the Legislature recommending no base tuition increase for universities, it was assumed they would seek the full 15 percent increase.

Even the state budget jumps to that conclusion -- including the extra revenue from a future 15 percent hike when listing out each university's projected revenue for the year, though keeping the per-credit-hour tuition rate the same as last year.

A 15 percent hike would amount to more than $100 million for the state university system. A 5 percent hike would generate around $39 million, or 10 percent of this year's total cut.

A USF spokesman said state budget cuts have left the university with few options when it comes to raising tuition. 

"Everyone at USF has been very concerned about the effect of tuition increases on students, and President Judy Genshaft has worked hard to ensure students get financial counseling to stay in college and graduate," said Michael Hoad. "Although our tuition is extremely low compared to other research universities in the nation, it's still hard on students when they're trying to budget each year. At the same, the state funding cuts we're staring at this year are unprecedented. Since the recession began in 2007, we haven't seen a cut this big. USF has been fiscally conservative throughout the recession, and it's helped us avoid precipitous cuts. But we may have run out of options, which is why setting tuition is such a critical decision."

-- Kim Wilmath