State Politics

Fla. college students may have to pay up

MANATEE — The Florida Legislature is poised to approve fee hikes tacked onto tuition that could potentially thin the wallets of millions of students statewide, but it is also considering some ideas that would financially help college students and their families.

Legislators noted that the average cost of tuition and fees last year at Florida’s public universities was $3,361, ranking dead last — 50th — among all the states; the national average was $5,390, according to statistics provided by the state Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s university system.

“The cost of higher education is one of the lowest in the entire nation,” said Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, state House of Representatives Speaker Pro Tempore. “And one proposal I’m watching from the higher education council is just to bring it into the middle of the pack.

“It’s moving along, I expect it to pass,” noted Reagan last week. “I think it makes sense.”

Bills under consideration would allow the state’s 11 public universities, with 294,000 students, to gradually raise rates by up to 15 percent annually until tuition and fees reach the national average.

The state’s 28 community colleges, with more than 870,000 students, could raise rates by up to 7 or 8 percent per year, depending upon which plan legislators favor.

It looks like the long, cheap ride for Bright Futures scholars, last year comprising nearly 44 percent of public university resident undergrads, is about to end.

Measures under consideration would require that those with academic scholarships financed with lottery money carry an increasing share — eventually close to half — of the cost of their education.

Another plan would require them to repay the cost of courses they dropped after the official drop/add period ended, with some exceptions. It would save the state $20-30 million.

Still, there are a few financial bright spots for the college set:

n The hikes would primarily affect those now in high school, current college freshmen and some sophomores; undergrads attending state universities continuously prior to July 1, 2007 would be exempt.

n Those enrolled in the state’s pre-paid tuition plan before July 1, 2007 would be exempt.

n Another potential savings for college students might come from an initiative legislators set in motion last year designed to bring down the cost of textbooks, which can cost hundreds of dollars each semester.

State Senate Bill 762 and its companion House Bill 403 could potentially cost students more because they would allow each public university to charge a “tuition differential,” a fee assessed undergraduate students in addition to base tuition and fees, state officials said.

Each university could decide whether and how much to raise its differential fee, increasing year-to-year by up to 15 percent of the previous year’s cost, according to a Senate analysis of the bill.

Assuming the Legislature does not raise basic tuition, but that the differential fee grew by the maximum 15 percent each year, by 2013-14, the cost would rise from $130.66 to $224.77 per credit hour at five universities that currently impose a differential; and from $123.70 to $210.77 per credit hour at six schools that do not currently impose a differential, the analysis said.

Students generally take 15 credit hours per semester.

“With the potential expansion of the tuition differential to all state universities, it is likely that no Florida Academic Scholar (the most generous Bright Futures Scholarship) will receive 100 percent of the cost of tuition and fees,” the analysis said. “Instead, many students will find that the scholarship covered approximately half of these costs.”

The various plans under discussion in Tallahassee enjoy considerable support among legislators and even among students.

“The dollars would go toward the classroom,” explained Christopher Krampert, the executive director of The Florida Student Association, made up of student body presidents representing each of the state’s public universities.

“Students are increasingly feeling the crunch from the financial situation, whether it would be not being able to get the classes they need to graduate, a lot of majors and graduate programs are being cut, the best and brightest professors are leaving our state institutions,” he said.

“Students understand when you engage them in conversation, get into the details of it, what the problems are, the potential solutions, students are a lot more accepting. Our association is in favor.”

Classes jammed with 500 students each at the University of Florida or Florida State University are “almost unconscionable,” said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, whose district covers part of Manatee.

“If increased tuition allows our universities and colleges to catch up and better provide service, I think it’s warranted,” said Rouson.

“Some increase is merited, but every increase we also price some (students) out,” he noted. “And so that’s an inherent danger, but on balance, we have too many kids in these institutions and not enough classroom space and teachers.”

Manatee Community College officials said it probably would be the end of the month before they know how various proposals might affect the school.

“Whatever the tuition increase will be, it should not discourage students from coming to college,” said MCC spokeswoman Kathy Walker. “Florida remains among the lowest in tuition at state colleges and universities, and MCC has ample financial aid packages including scholarships, grants and loans.”

Another bill would remove funding for Bright Futures’ students who drop classes after the official drop/add period ends, with some exceptions.

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, a University of Florida alumnus and the chairman of the Legislature’s “Gator Caucus” during the last two years, favors tuition fee hikes on grounds that helping Florida’s flagship schools to offer a top-quality education would be worth the cost.

But Galvano was less supportive of some of the other changes, he said.

“I’m less inclined to sign off on those changes,” he said of the plan to seek repayment from Bright Futures scholars for courses dropped after the official drop/add period. “I’ve always been protective of the Bright Futures. I want to visit those further because I know how it is for students.”

Sometimes, when a student gets the chance to take a special course at the last minute, he or she might need flexibility to accomplish it, he said.

State Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, was among the supporters of legislation last year designed to bring down the price of textbooks. It could potentially save money for every college student, because it led to a statewide effort to make textbooks more affordable in a number of ways. The plan is expected to go into effect July 1.

Florida officials hope to harness the power of the global marketplace in their campaign by requiring that schools must post a list of textbooks required for each course at least 30 days before the first day of class for each term. The requirement would provide students enough time to use the power of the Internet to shop for books, and gives bookstores time to stock used books, which cost less than new ones, said Bill Edmonds, director of communications for the state Board of Governors.

Additional time might also spur greater competition among bookstores and provide other options, such as rental or sharing arrangements among students, officials said. “What’s really important as we move into the end of session, in these economic times anything we can do to make higher education affordable, we should do,” said Flores.

The board, which is charged with implementing the new law, has posted the plan for comments and expects final approval at its meeting in June.

As part of the process, a task force of educators spent months studying the issue. “It is the firm belief of this task force that if students have enough time, if bookstores have enough time, they can really put a dent in the price of books,” Edmonds said several weeks ago.

At New College in Manatee County, the 30-day posting requirement has already been met, an official said. “We are complying with the state Legislature’s affordability act,” said Sam Savin, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “. . . Among the things we’re doing, we’re posting all of the textbooks we use in our classes well in advance. Some of next fall’s books are already posted at the bookstore Web site so students know exactly what books are being used by the professors well in advance.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908 or at skennedy@bradenton.com

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