TAMPA — It appears state university students won’t face a tuition increase of any kind next year – not even a rate-of-inflation bump that set back University of South Florida students about $52 this year.
A state Senate committee on Tuesday moved to eliminate the automatic annual inflation increase, a provision in state statute that became a point of contention for university budget-writers and a pesky irritant for Gov. Rick Scott, who has stumped for no tuition hikes – period.
With Florida’s economy strengthening, spending on higher education has risen. Last year, lawmakers gave back $300 million universities had to pull from reserves to get through the recession and tacked on $150 million in new university funding.
Scott insisted on no new tuition increases. The Legislature, with many leaders arguing that Florida universities are comparatively inexpensive, budgeted a 3 percent tuition hike, which Scott vetoed.
University presidents cited state law that requires them to invoke the inflation increase when tuition stays flat. It amounted to a 1.7 percent.
At USF’s main campus, in-state full-time undergraduates paid $6,410 in tuition and fees in fall 2013. Of that, $3,152 was called for by the Legislature and was subject to the inflation increase.
If the consumer price index stayed at an annual 1.5 percent rate, which was its level for the 12 months ending in December, the automatic inflation increase would have added about $47 to a tuition bill next fall.
Tuesday’s move sets a different tone for a Legislature that had allowed tuition at state universities to rise 113 percent over the past 10 years. The fact that it’s an election year could also be good news for students and parents who foot the bills for college.
“What we’re seeing is a costly postsecondary experience,” said state Sen. Bill Galvano, a Republican from Bradenton. “Young people are coming out and not being able to find jobs, and because of the cost of tuition, student loans are being taken out, so they have a lot of debt. This fits in with the overall goal of creating a real passport for employment through the postsecondary system.”
Galvano successfully attached an amendment to the committee bill that limits universities’ ability to raise what is known as tuition differential – the amount sought by individual universities on top of the Legislature’s overall higher education allocation.
Previously, universities could not exceed a 15 percent increase in the tuition differential year-to-year; Galvano’s amendment caps it at 6 percent.
The move was pushed by House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, who said it would help rein in the cost of prepaid tuition programs.
Of the $6,410 tuition and fee figure at the USF main campus, $3,152 is considered base tuition set by the Legislature, $1,406 is USF’s differential fee, and $1,851 is required fees.
The reduction from the 15 percent cap to 6 percent is moot for now at USF, said Mark Walsh, the school’s assistant vice president for government relations.
“We weren’t foreseeing using that 15 percent permissible amount for some time — there’s not the necessity” when the state budget is healthy and lawmakers are friendly toward higher education, Walsh said.
But USF boosted base and differential tuition 11 percent in 2012-13 and 15 percent the year before that.
The university is currently projecting no tuition increases through the 2015-16 school year, although fees can vary year to year.
Scott’s budget recommendation for 2014-15 includes $118 million in new spending over the current year’s funding for the state university system, with a total allocation of $4.21 billion.
“Gov. Scott is focused on keeping tuition low for Florida’s students and is committed to holding the line on any tuition increase,” said Jackie Schutz, Scott’s press secretary. “The Senate’s legislation is a good first step but there is still a lot more left to do to ensure students have access to an affordable education.”