State requests increase in higher education funding


For the first time since the recession, Florida universities will potentially see an increase in state funding this upcoming year, a year many are calling a victory for education.

“It was probably one of, if not the best year ever, for the university system,” Mark Walsh, USF Assistant Vice President for Government Relations, said.

This year’s legislative session, which ended earlier this month, was an overall victory for higher education as state leadership in the House and Senate “felt it was in the best interest to invest in the state’s education system,” Walsh said.

In recent years, higher education repeatedly received slight reductions in funding and many universities were forced to rely on tuition to increase revenue, but according to Walsh, that pattern was reversed this year as the State University System received the “single largest increase (he has) ever seen,” approximately 7 percent in overall funds.

In that proposed budget by the state Legislature, Walsh said “not a single cent” was coming from a tuition increase as the proposed legislation eliminated raises in tuition or tuition differential, though projections indicate more funding from tuition as more students are expected to matriculate into state universities.

The Legislature’s proposed budget also allocated funds for several multimillion-dollar projects specific to USF.

The budget allocated $5 million in recurring funds toward establishing the Florida Center for Cybersecurity within USF, $15 million toward the completed construction of the USF Health Heart Institute, $10 million toward the construction of the USF St. Pete College of Business and $1.4 million in recurring funds to continue developing USF Sarasota-Manatee’s STEM programs.

Also on USF’s priority list, Walsh said, was state legislation to allow military veterans the right to pay in-state tuition, which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in March after the passage of the Congressman C.W. Bill Young Tuition Waiver Program.

Though Walsh said “we’re not quite there yet,” as the budget has to wait the approval or veto of Scott in the coming weeks, USF could be on more “sound financial footing,” as the state Legislature recognized the Board of Governor’s Performance Funding Model, allocating $200 million in recurring funds to the program.

Last year, USF finished second in the state according to this performance model, which is based on a series of performance metrics chosen between the state and the university.

As Scott has previously been in favor of several of the STEM-related initiatives, and given USF’s history with performance-based funding, Walsh said he is optimistic about next year.

“In order to make sure there was as little disruption to the classroom as possible in recent years, there had to be cutbacks on the basic infrastructure of the university … things like repairs had to wait,” Walsh said.

“If it was potentially outdated, but still worked and you maybe would have liked to upgrade to get the latest and greatest stuff for your educational platform — those are now things we have funds to be able to do, things that have had to sit and wait for four or five years. We now have the funding to the point to maintain and increase the educational quality and also fund some of those institutional needs that had to sit and wait to try to protect the classroom environment.”

USF Health was also allocated $5 million to replace the existing Morsani College of Medicine, which was constructed in the 1970s.

In addition to allowing all student veterans to pay in-state tuition, the Legislature also passed a bill to allow in-state tuition for qualifying undocumented students.