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Outlook bleak for Florida universities

University of Central Florida

The Legislature has moved forward as expected on a plan to curb tuition hikes at state universities.

The Senate Education Committee backed legislation (SB 7036) that would eliminate an automatic inflation-based tuition increase and reduce the ability of individual universities to raise the so-called “differential” tuition, cutting the rate from 15 percent to 6 percent.

The move is in line with Gov. Rick Scott’s call for no tuition increases this year, which has been endorsed by House and Senate leaders.

The decision to eliminate a tuition increase in an election year may prove popular. But a new report from the LeRoy Collins Institute, a nonpartisan think tank associated with the state university system, makes a compelling case that tuition increases may be a necessary component to achieve a top-quality public university system.

One of the most startling figures cited in the “Tougher Choices: Shaping Florida’s Future” report shows that Florida was last in the nation in total per-student spending — including state funding as well as tuition — among state university systems in the 2011-12 academic year.

“While being at the bottom means we can only go up, the prospects for additional funding for higher education seem bleak,” said the report, written by David Denslow and James Dewey with the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.

Florida was hit harder than many other states because, with its relatively low tuition, the state universities were more reliant on state funding, which was reduced by the Great Recession, and less reliant on tuition.

The state fell from 43rd among the states in per-student funding in 2007 to 50th in 2012, with Florida falling to 70 percent of the average funding that other states are spending on their university students.

The report makes the case that if Florida wants to compete with states like North Carolina or Virginia, it may need to raise tuition. For instance, UNC students paid $26,834 in annual tuition in 2012, compared to $5,656 at UF or $5,825 at FSU.

The report also argues that students and their families may be willing to pay higher costs if it results in substantial quality improvements.

Again citing UNC, the school ranked 29th among all national universities in the U.S News 2012 survey, compared to UF’s 58th ranking and FSU’s 101.

A boost in university funding could help offset a growing national phenomenon among higher-education students: they are spending less time studying. The Collins report says recent surveys show less than one in five students spend more than 20 hours a week in classrooms and studying.

Among the reasons cited for less academic time are larger class sizes, which a funding increase could help reduce, as well as grade inflation.

But as lawmakers begin their annual session next month, a tuition increase not does seem realistic this year. Lawmakers may continue to increase state funding for the universities but it is not expected to be a substantial boost.

“A leaner higher education system seems likely, at least for the identifiable future,” the report concludes.

The 110-page report — updating a 2005 report from the institute that identified many of the same issues — touches on an array of challenges facing Florida in coming decades. Other issues include public school funding, road congestion, workforce issues, Medicaid and demographic challenges in state that has a rapidly growing elder population.

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