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State university presidents say they won't hike tuition if Legislature gives them $118 million

As expected, the presidents and student leaders of Florida’s state universities have made the Legislature an offer they hope will not be refused: Give them $118 million and they won’t raise tuition this year.

“What we’re asking for this year is a significant investment from the state, tied to specific goals to universities,” said University of West Florida President Judy Bense. “With an investment provided for our students, we promise not to seek one penny of a tuition increase this year.”

This new funding would be on top of the restoration of a $300 million one-time cut the Legislature imposed last year, which is already being built into the state budget. University of North Florida President John Delaney said universities need more money whether it comes from tuition or the state budget.

“Fundamentally the system is underfunded, and the source of that money is secondary in regard, I think, to the universities,” he said. “The question is that it’s underfunded as compared to the rest of the country, approximately 30 percent is spent less in Florida compared to the national average on each student.”

Judy Genshaft, he president of the University of South Florida, said one in five students at the school are first-time college students and holding the line on tuition is key for keeping them enrolled.

“We really believe that it’s important to keep tuition at a steady state that we have right now but the only way to do that is through the $118 million addition through state appropriations,” she said. “You know the state university system has lost 40 percnet of it’s budget within the last five to six years so that’s a huge number and we know that this (new money) will allow us to stay steady.”

Genshaft acknowledged that the state is moving away from previous efforts to increase Florida tuition so that it is closer to the national average. Gov. Rick Scott’s opposition to tuition increases means that is no longer the plan, she said.

“We’re in a situation where the governor is very opposed to an increase in tuition and we understand," she siad. "And we’re also concerned about the strains” on students.

The universities’ funding request is separate from another money-related issue likely to be raised again by the University of Florida and Florida State University. Both universities are still advocating to receive “pre-eminence” status that will allow them unlimited ability to increase tuition. Scott vetoed that bill last year because of his stand on tuition hikes.

FSU President Eric Barron said “pre-eminence” is “a different topic that should be addressed differently” than the no-tuition pledge that all 12 state university presidents have agreed to. UF President Bernie Machen then chimed in, saying the “pre-eminence” proposal is more complex than just the tuition issue.

“In fact, the major benefit of that bill for the state was to set up guidelines and benchmarks to identify excellence in our state universities,” Machen said. “We’re in favor of that, the Board of Governors remains in favor of that. The tuition aspect of it was simply one mechanism that could be used to receive new resources.”