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Legislators weigh in on tuition increases ahead of universities' funding announcement

Wednesday morning, presidents and student leaders from many of the state's universities will convene on the Capitol to make a major announcement regarding funding. The expectation is the announcement will be related to the $118 million in new funding the State University System has requested for the 2013-2014 budget.

That money would be distributed among the 11 existing schools and tied to performance. But the amount is also notable because is it  quivalent to the amount universities would receive if they increased tuition by the maximum 15 percent allowable by state law. At the most recent Florida Board of Governors meeting, members said they would consider forgoing tuition increases if the state granted this $118 million request.

Gov. Rick Scott has said he will not support further tuition increases and is urging colleges and universities to make degrees cheaper. But educators, and even the governor's own higher education task force, have said that without new state dollars tuition is the only way for universities to meet their bottom lines.

With legislators in Tallahassee for the first committee week of the 2013 session, we pulled aside some of the leading education advocates to ask whether they would consider giving more money to the universities and their thoughts about rising tuition costs.

Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican, is chairman of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. He said he disagrees with Scott’s hard stance against tuition increases and believes there should be flexibility in the funding policy in order to address the unique needs of each university.

“I do see situations where in certain universities perhaps there shouldn’t be an increase and certain universities there should be,” he said. “And I think that the market conditions and the enrollment conditions should be the driving force behind that policy and not just some blanket policy for all universities.”

Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat, said the state should give universities more money, especially if it means tuition increases are avoided.

“The idea that state universities have had to increase tuition over the last several years is the wrong way to go,” said Bullard, a teacher who sits on the Senate’s Education Committee and Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “As a state, we should be more willing to kick in and find new means of revenue to fund the universities properly.”

Dale Brill, president of the Florida Chamber Foundation, gave the House’s Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee a presentation on the recommendations from the governor’s higher education task force, which he chaired. Brill shared statistics about the rising debt load among students, the job industries showing the highest growth and the trend in Florida of tax dollars being replaced by tuition to cover universities’ costs.

After the meeting, Brill said the task force believes that the state should invest new dollars in the state universities as long as the money comes with strings attached.

“In our funding recommendation in that first line it says fund them equivalent to your expectations on them,” Brill said. “… Tie it to performance. Performance funding is the path to giving the Legislature, the governor and the citizens of Florida a sense that there is a deliberate return that everybody buys into that we’re going to pursue.”

Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, who chairs the Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee, said there has to be collaboration to determine what the universities need versus what the state can afford.

“That’s my hope, at least as chair of this committee, to make sure that all the stakeholders involved are looking at things from that prism,” she said. “Not just from the tuition angle or from the affordability angle.”