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Politics

Ad Watch: Tuition heats up campaign

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Published:   |   Updated: June 8, 2014 at 05:37 PM

ญญ— “College tuition costs too much. Everybody knows that — well, everyone but Charlie Crist.”

That's the opening of the latest TV ad for Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign as he seeks to blame the problem on his likely Democratic opponent and predecessor in office, former Gov. Charlie Crist.

If Scott has his way, the increases will be a major issue in the campaign heading into November's election.

But the reasons for the increases and who's to blame are more complicated questions than the TV ad suggests.

Both Scott and Crist have overseen university tuition increases as governor, and both have vetoed tuition increases. Experts say tuition has gone up under both men for reasons that would have been tough for any governor to resist.

They include the national economic collapse; tuition that remains comparatively low even after the increases; and, ironically, the Bright Futures scholarship program, which was meant to make college more affordable for Florida families.

Crist oversaw substantial tuition increases during his four years as governor; Scott, after big increases in his first two years, has made determined efforts to hold the line, taking advantage of the improving economy that followed the economic collapse Crist faced.

But Scott has also overseen the first cuts in Bright Futures.

When Crist took office in 2007, higher education advocates believed the state's university system was seriously underfunded.

At the time, Florida was at or near the bottom nationwide in tuition and fees for its four-year public universities, according to The College Board.

“The argument was made that that situation was artificially restricting our major national institutions by comparison to their peers,” said Mark Walsh, lobbyist and vice president for government relations at the University of South Florida.

Since then, tuition in Florida has gone up faster than the national average, The College Board figures show, particularly at the university system's flagship institution, the University of Florida. Still, the state remained 43rd in the price of tuition in 2013-14.

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At times, Walsh said, UF's tuition has been as little as a fourth or a fifth of the tuition at institutions it considers its peer group, such as Penn State.

The 2014 Princeton Review list of the nation's 10 “best value” colleges includes two public Florida schools, UF and New College of Florida.

Scott's ad, aired by his independent political committee, Let's Get to Work, blasts what it says were 15 percent annual increases backed by Crist.

“Charlie Crist allowed college tuition to increase up to 15 percent every year,” the ad says. “Crist says it was the right thing to do at the time. A 15 percent tuition increase every year is the right thing to do, Charlie? Now Gov. Rick Scott is making college more affordable. Scott repealed Crist's tuition increase — wiped it out. Charlie Crist. Slick politician, lousy governor.”

The ad is correct in saying Crist signed a law allowing tuition at the state's public universities to go up as much as 15 percent a year until the rates reached the national average, and they did go up that much in Crist's last two years as governor.

What the ad doesn't mention is that the same 15 percent increases continued in Scott's first year as governor, and at some schools in his second year.

It also doesn't mention that the increases were passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature and supported by Scott political allies, including the one he chose as his running mate and lieutenant governor — Carlos Lopez-Cantera, then a House member.

Further, the statement that Scott “repealed Crist's tuition increase, wiped it out,” would seem to indicate Scott cut back tuition. He actually only stopped further increases.

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Here's a recent tuition chronology, based on information from Walsh, Tampa Tribune reports and state university system Board of Governors spokeswoman Brittany Davis:

Despite the low tuition when Crist took office in 2007, he vetoed a 5 percent increase passed by the Legislature that spring.

Higher education advocates statewide and even business interests reacted by lobbying Crist hard to change his mind, particularly for the three big-name research schools — UF, the University of South Florida and Florida State University.

They said those schools were falling behind their peers nationally in retaining top faculty and offering financial aid.

Crist gave in and agreed to sign the 5 percent hike after a special legislative session that fall. He also signed a bill allowing the Board of Governors to provide further “differential” increases at its discretion, up to a total of 15 percent a year for the big three schools.

But he added two conditions: 30 percent of the added money would go for financial aid, and the differential increases would be held off a year.

By 2008, the national economic collapse was shrinking state revenues, making it harder for the Legislature to find money to appropriate for higher education.

But tuition increases also created a problem because of Bright Futures, said Walsh. The two-tiered program covered either 75 or 100 percent of tuition and fees for qualifying students, so every time the Legislature increased tuition, “they were basically sending themselves a bill to pay.”

Rising college costs and declining family incomes were pushing top students into low-priced public schools, rapidly increasing Bright Futures' costs. At the most exclusive Florida schools, including UF and New College, 90 percent or more of the students received Bright Futures aid.

That meant the state had to pay their tuition increases.

But Bright Futures didn't cover the “differential” increases. The solution: All other universities were allowed differential increases, as well.

In 2009 and 2010 under Crist, and 2011 under Scott, the Legislature approved 8 percent increases and the Board of Governors added 7 percent to reach the 15 percent cap.

In 2012, the Legislature approved no increase, but the Board of Governors imposed its own increase of 9 to 15 percent at selected schools.

In 2013, Scott vetoed a 3 percent tuition hike passed by the Legislature and urged the Board of Governors to hold off any increases in 2014, which it did, imposing only a 1.7 percent cost-of-living increase.

This year, Scott signed a bill ending the differential increases, but the bill didn't roll back the previous increases.

Meanwhile, under Scott in 2011, academic requirements for Bright Futures scholarships were increased, causing the first decreases since the program was founded in 1997 in the numbers of students who benefit and amount of money disbursed.

The numbers dropped from a high of $429.01 million in 2008-09 to $306.9 million in 2013-14. The number of students dropped from 218,827 in 2011-12 to 204,476 in 2012-13.

Scott has worked to make tuition an issue in the race, meeting with graduating high school students and their parents and rapping Crist for increases that he says could destroy their dreams.

“We've got to reduce the tuition increases that Charlie Crist created back when he was governor,” Scott said at one such meeting at Tampa's Jefferson High School in March. “We've got to undo that wrong.”

Crist campaign spokesman Kevin Cate said Scott is more to blame if families have trouble affording college in Florida.

“Gov. Crist was dealing with the global economic collapse, while Rick Scott now has the largest budget in the history of Florida,” Cate said.

wmarch@tampatrib.com

813-259-7761

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