Higher tuition rates might make Florida competitive

Florida public universities’ low tuition rates seem to be catching up with them as state funding drops and universities scramble to make ends meet while attempting to focus on increasing national recognition.

At less than $4,000 for 30 credit hours, universities in Florida have some of the lowest tuitions in the nation. Gov. Charlie Crist supports a proposal that would let universities raise tuition by up to 15 percent per year, until the total cost equals the current national average, which is about $6,585 for the same number of hours.

“Being able to have tuitions so low is a luxury,” said Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith.

Raising its rates to the national average would make USF comparable in price to schools such as Georgia Tech and the Universities of Nebraska and Oregon, both members of the Association of American Universities (AAU).

USF most frequently compares itself to AAU institutions, and is striving to join the organization, Smith said. The AAU is a collection of 62 public and private institutions in North America, whose members are invited to join based on criteria such as research funding, doctoral education and postdoctoral appointments.

Requirements for the AAU are set out in two phases. Phase I requirements that USF has met include competitively funded federal research support, as well as faculty arts and humanities awards and fellowships. USF is attempting to meet requirements for faculty membership in national academies, National Research Council faculty ratings and continuous citations of research work, according to an academic affairs presentation in 2007.

USF meets one Phase II standard: a high number of postdoctoral appointees. Government research funding as well as undergraduate and doctoral education are standard areas that USF hopes to improve with its strategic plan.

USF continues to look toward this long-term goal despite recent financial setbacks, though the process may be slowed.

“Where the budget situation might be a hindrance is that it takes money to do certain things — to grow and develop certain aspects (of the University),” said Jacqui Cash, communications and marketing officer for academic affairs.  “Just because we are facing a difficult time does not mean we don’t keep an eye on the prize.”

According to the AAU Web site, its two most recent members joined in 2001. The process is a selective one, and even if USF is eligible, that does not mean it will receive an invitation, Cash said.

President Judy Genshaft brought up USF’s continuing goal for greater recognition in her fall 2008 address.

“We have an incredibly bold mission, and we have the momentum to get there,” she said. “It’s important because it requires a comprehensive set of measures, not just one. There are many measures by which USF is already eligible for AAU. But we’re not ready in every measure.”

Throughout its history, Provost Ralph Wilcox said, Florida has done a good job of investing in education. Recent tax cuts, however, have reduced the amount of funding available for public universities.

“If we continue to see state investment plummet, our ability to provide education to you is greatly challenged,” Wilcox said.

Allowing universities to raise tuition costs would lead to smaller class sizes and more faculty positions filled, said Shannon Colavecchio, spokeswoman for the governor’s office.

A tuition increase might bring $10 million to the University, Wilcox said, but that is not enough to fill the gap left by the state. USF plans to focus on cutting costs internally, such as by limiting faculty positions and allowing larger class sizes.

In comparison, private schools, which are tuition-dependent but more expensive, can provide resources such as smaller class sizes and more personalized attention, Wilcox said.

“You get what you pay for,” he said, adding that USF is focusing on efficiency and quality in education.

For student government leaders across the state, the quality of education is a major concern.

Chris Krampert, executive director for the Florida Student Association — which is made up of student governments from Florida public universities — said the top priority is to make sure the Legislature does not cut funding to schools if it allows universities to raise tuition.

Though students may face higher costs, financial aid adviser Corliss Harvey said USF will help students facing a wider array of  financial difficulties, such as students’ job loss in the middle of a semester. Also, the federal government has stepped in to provide more resources to students.

“In response to the recent economy, the federal government has raised the amount of loans students are eligible for,” she said.

Krampert said FSA also wants to make sure students have resources available to prepare for the job market when they leave the university system.

Along with university funding, the state must continue to provide Bright Futures scholarships to students already receiving them.

It is possible that with increased tuition and more students qualifying for the scholarship, the state may impose stricter standards on it, Cash said, by looking at academic requirements for the scholarship in comparison with university admission requirements.

However, Colavecchio said that when institutions raise their tuition above a base price, students must pay the difference — not Bright Futures.

“We are going to continue to work with the Governor’s office, senate and house to make sure (a tuition increase) ends up being something palatable and beneficial for students,” Krampert said.