University approves tuition increase

The Board of Governors approved an 8 percent tuition increase Thursday.

The increase, which will cost about $135.40 more per student each semester, comes about as presidents and administrators from the State University System try to cope with a $90-million cut to universities slated to take effect this fall.

The Committee’s decision was the result of a tight vote – only 50 percent of the Budget Committee voted in favor of what was originally a 13 percent increase per year for a period of five years. Committee Chair Tico Perez cast the tie-breaking ballot in favor of the measure.

These cuts stem from a weakening stream of tax revenue in Florida, which stands to take in about $1 billion less than legislators originally anticipated, bringing the estimated total budget shortfall to about $2 billion to date.

Analysts credit the change to a slowing real estate market and cooling economy.

Property tax revenue – from which the state gets a lot of its money – increased after a series of hurricanes drove up construction, and thus housing costs. Tax revenue was likewise bolstered by the real estate boom that swept both the county and state. The real estate growth has since waned, however, and the Federal Reserve cut interest rates earlier this week to stave off economic decline.

Unemployment in Florida was 4.7 percent in December – up from 3.3 percent in December 2006. Nationally, unemployment edged to 5 percent in December 2007, compared to 4.4 percent one year earlier, according to Bureau of Labor statistics.

At the beginning of the fall semester, Florida told SUS institutions they’d have to shave 3.6 percent from their budgets, and just recently told them to cut another 3.8 percent. For USF, this means a loss of $26 million. In an announcement posted on USF’s Web site, President Judy Genshaft called for the University to trim 15 percent from its budget as a preemptive measure, as SUS schools still aren’t sure whether the state will call for further cuts.

USF has reacted to these cuts by enacting a hiring freeze, and Genshaft called for more efficient spending by centralizing the purchase of office supplies and other equipment – to get discounts for buying in bulk – at a Faculty Senate meeting Wednesday.

The call to increase tuition came about as the BOG – which is charged with running the State University System – was discussing ways the SUS could cope with budget cuts without compromising academic quality, including widening student-to-faculty ratios and decreasing graduation rates.

About 70 percent of the proposed increase would go toward hiring and retaining faculty. The other 30 percent would be for need-based financial aid.

At the Budget Committee meeting that approved the increase before it went before the whole BOG, several governors expressed frustration, saying the tuition increase was overdue and that a drastic increase is necessary to make headway in preserving the System.

“I’ve only been on this board for one year and I’m embarrassed,” said Gus Stavros, a member of the BOG. “I have never been involved in a mediocre institution in my life. I don’t understand why we don’t raise tuition. We all know it has to be done. I don’t believe that the legislature would hurt the system more than it’s been hurt already. I’m tired of hearing that we need to raise tuition. Let’s do it. It’s time that we do something about raising tuition and we bite the bullet.”

BOG member Frank Martin questioned whether even the 13 percent increase was enough, as it will push SUS tuition – currently the cheapest in the nation – only to the top of the fourth quartile of public university tuition rates.

“Are we setting our sights too low?” he asked, advocating including money for academic counselors in the increased faculty funding.

SUS Chancellor Mark Rosenberg agreed with Martin, offering a grimmer outlook of the increase’s potential to help the system.

“We are absolutely setting our sights too low,” he said. “This is about recovery to the bottom in many ways. It’s not about reaching for the top.”

BOG members present at the discussion said the Legislature would have to decide whether Bright Futures would cover the increase. About 13,000 students at USF (campuses) receive Bright Futures.

When the measure came before the full BOG, Budget Committee member Sheila McDevitt said that although she initially voted for the 13 percent increase, she felt uncomfortable and would prefer an 8 percent increase for the 2008-2009 school year.

Budget Committee Member Charlie Edwards disagreed and said the members were kidding themselves by denying the need to raise tuition significantly.

The BOG also voted to increase tuition in July and filed a now-defunct lawsuit against the state that would essentially have determined whether it or the Legislature controlled SUS tuition.

It is unclear whether Gov. Charlie Crist, who in the past has been hesitant to raise tuition, will fight the BOG on this issue.

In the education budget posted on his Web site Jan. 17, Crist did not include any mention of a tuition increase.

A Crist spokesman said the Governor’s position had not changed.

“He’s not recommending any tuition increase,” said Thomas Philpot, a spokesman for Gov. Crist.

The viability of branch campuses was also questioned during the Budget Committee’s meeting, and the Committee agreed to temper student enrollment with budget cuts and faculty hiring freezes.

The BOG also agreed to require students at SUS universities to sign a form affirming that they know about the bacterial meningitis vaccine and have either received it or knowingly opted out of it.

Calls to revisit the SUS’s vaccination policy came after USF sophomore Rachel Futterman died of meningitis in September.

Asst. News Editor Christine Gibson and Staff Writer Morgan Rotberg contributed reporting.