Shifting tuition authority could solve funding woes

Another skirmish in the seemingly never-ending battle over Florida’s college tuition began Friday, the outcome of which could have far-reaching effects on Florida’s students.

According to an article in Saturday’s St. Petersburg Times, a group headed by Bob Graham, former governor of Florida, filed a suit against the Legislature asking the court to verify the Board of Governors’ (BOG) authority to set tuition by declaring unconstitutional the statute that assigns, said authority to lawmakers. The suit argues that the BOG has held that power since its creation in 2002, but uncertainty has kept the board from attempting to assert its authority.

Such a lawsuit might seem extreme, but as Florida’s universities struggle to find sufficient funds to provide services for students, it is increasingly clear that action of some sort is necessary.

Gov. Charlie Crist’s veto of a 5 percent statewide tuition increase for the 2007-2008 school year, his delaying of differential tuition for Florida’s three largest universities until 2008-2009 and an impeding 4 to 10 percent cut to state university funds have put Florida colleges in a serious monetary crunch. USF alone faces a $44 million budget gap for the coming year that administrators are uncertain how to close. According to today’s Oracle, plans up for debate are enrollment capping, hiring freezes, encouraging retirement, increasing class sizes, offering more classes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and reducing Library and computer lab hours.

While giving the BOG the power to increase tuition would almost certainly result in them using it, such a situation could finally push the Legislation to provide schools the funds they need. Sen. President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, however, seems to disagree. In a statement on Friday, he said, “This lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to get unbridled tuition increases. God help our students if they win.”

Such a statement is hardly surprising, though, as keeping tuition low is often a political maneuver employed to placate voters. Without the power to do so outright, lawmakers would have to resort to what currently seems an unmanageable feat – providing sufficient funding – in order to maintain the low tuition rates their constituents enjoy.

Granting the BOG power to affect tuition is a potentially unpopular solution, but our universities need a solution, not popularity. If the state cannot provide it, then the BOG, described in the amendment that created it as “responsible for the management of the whole (university) system,” should have the authority to do so.