TAMPA — After years of double-digit tuition hikes, students at the University of South Florida caught a break last school year when they were spared any significant increase.
And with Gov. Rick Scott standing in the bully pulpit, it appears the state will continue to “hold the line on tuition,” as the governor promised in his January state-of-the-state speech.
While that’s good news for students and parents who foot the bill for college, in doing the governor’s bidding, lawmakers have also taken from USF budget-writers what had been a valuable tool to keep the university afloat through lean budget times.
A higher education bill best known for providing in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants also prevents USF and most other state universities from increasing what is called a tuition differential on undergraduates’ annual tuition bills.
The tuition differential is a supplemental fee that is tacked on to the state-imposed tuition rate. Previously, all of Florida’s public universities could apply for a differential, which was considered for approval by the state university system’s Board of Governors.
State law limited such requests so that any differential combined with the state-imposed tuition rate did not exceed a 15 percent increase in the prior year’s tuition.
Now, only the University of Florida and Florida State University — designated the state’s preeminent research universities — will be allowed to increase the differential.
In the stagnant economy of the last several years, USF took prime advantage of that opportunity, adding differentials that pushed the overall tuition hike to the 15 percent ceiling in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and represented an 11 percent increase in 2012-13.
Mark Walsh, USF’s assistant vice president for government relations, said the differential was a valuable mechanism in those lean years.
“We used it to offset a lot of reductions in state funds at the time,” Walsh said.
USF pulled in $14 million from the supplemental fee in 2010-11, $22 million the next year, $34 million the next, and $36 million this year.
The tuition differential was authorized in a June 2007 bill that was signed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Advocates said that in-state tuition at Florida public universities, among the lowest in the nation, did not provide the resources for the infrastructure of a research university. USF, UF, and FSU were originally allowed to add the supplemental fee, with the remaining universities later granted permission as the recession dug into school budgets.
Jack Latvala, a Republican state senator from Clearwater, said the tuition provisions in the new bill were added at Scott’s behest. “The governor was pretty adamant that we reduce the cost of higher education so that we open it to as many people as we can,” said Latvala, a key proponent of the language that provided in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants.
“Working out the bill, you give everyone a little bit of what they want. I would have probably added USF to that. But once they become one of those elite schools, they can have the opportunity to get it, too,” he said.
Under the new legislation, no university is required to lower or eliminate their existing tuition differential; they no longer have the authority to raise the rate going forward.
And although they are eligible for the increased tuition differential, UF and FSU are capped at a 6 percent tuition increase overall, down from the original 15 percent, and they must meet certain performance standards.
Walsh said that because the Legislature was generous to state universities this year, USF was not expecting to seek a tuition differential increase for next year.
“We would have preferred to have kept some authority, but it wasn’t something we felt like we needed to fight too hard for in light of the year we were having,” he said.
Walsh said he would expect that if the state economy were to enter another swoon, “I think the Legislature would revisit their policy.”
Lawmakers also eliminated the automatic rate-of-inflation tuition increases at Florida universities. That boosted tuition at USF by 1.7 percent last year.
The bill passed on the final day of the legislative session and has not yet been sent to the governor. Scott supported the measure.
The higher-ed bill also provided for in-state tuition for military veterans. Walsh said USF would feel little if any impact from allowing vets and undocumented children in-state tuition because the number of vets attending school would likely increase as a result of the legislation and the number of undocumented students attending USF is negligible.