The major players in Florida’s fast-growing public university system are drawing the battle lines as a whole number of concerns converge and reemerge in the form of a lawsuit, a newly announced enrollment freeze and good old-fashioned defiance. The Florida Board of Governors, which controls the state’s 11 public universities, voted Tuesday to join a lawsuit asserting its power to control tuition rates, historically kept low by the Florida Legislature; freeze freshman enrollment; and, with the universities facing 4 to 10 percent cuts in appropriations due to a statewide, $1.2 billion shortfall, raise tuition and fees regardless of legislative approval.
The response of State Senate President Ken Pruitt?
“We’ll see you in court.”
The Stand-Off Takes Shape
The tension between the legislature and the board began mounting this spring when, ironically, Gov. Charlie Crist stepped in, vetoing 5 percent tuition increases for the state’s public universities and community colleges. Facing stagnant tuition rates for the first time in a decade, the board began breaking that tacit rule of state government – don’t complain too loudly about the legislative hand that feeds you – and openly questioned the legality of the Legislature’s long-time authority over Florida’s tuition structure.
In a lawsuit filed by former Florida governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham and a group of professors Friday -- and joined by the board Tuesday -- the plaintiffs argue that a 2002 constitutional amendment establishing a statewide Board of Governors transferred the authority over tuition revenue from the Legislature to the board. Citing USA Today’s 2006 College Tuition & Fees Survey, the complaint points out that the University of Florida and Florida State University have the lowest tuition and fees of 75 public flagship universities nationwide, at $3,206 and $3,307, respectively.
In the meantime, as the lawsuit goes to the courts, the board is exerting the authority it believes it has to hike tuition at public universities this spring by up to 5 percent -- whether the Legislature likes it or not. And, unsurprisingly, that's not going over well with lawmakers.
“I don’t think voters were trying to turn the Board of Governors into the fourth branch of government,” Senator Pruitt said in a written statement. “This lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to get unbridled tuition increases."
"God help our students if they win.”
“The board has been very hesitant, if you will, to enter into litigation, hoping that the legislature would be able to make some achievements in terms of state support,” said Diane McCain, director of external relations for the Board of Governors. On June 29, the governor, speaker of the house and senate president issued a memorandum asking state agencies and universities to identify cost savings by August and prepare for budget cuts in the 4 to 10 percent range as of this fall, McCain said. In response, the University of Central Florida announced a hiring freeze Wednesday, following in the footsteps of the University of Florida.
“Us experiencing in the past decade and longer what we call a ‘yo-yo effect’ brings us to a head and is what brings us to the decision that was made Tuesday: That is, we have a responsibility to the parents and the students," McCain said Thursday. "For those students who have entered the university with the promise of a high-quality education, we will hopefully be able to protect that.”
Hence, another prong of the board’s vote Tuesday: to freeze freshman enrollments at their fall levels starting in the spring. Community college transfer students would not be affected, McCain took pains to say, but thousands of high school graduates in a state that just keeps growing could find themselves without a seat. The public university system’s total enrollment has risen from 218,290 in 1998 to 282,134 in 2005. The 2005 numbers represented about a 4,500-student increase over those of 2004, when enrollment stood at 277,582.
“We’re concerned about the inability of the major universities to accommodate all the students who would love to come there,” said Edith Pendleton, vice president and chief of staff at Edison College. She said the enrollment freeze will “definitely” increase enrollments at Florida community colleges like Edison and that the institutions should respond by increasing their baccalaureate options.
Although, as Sherman Dorn, an associate professor of education at the University of South Florida and vice president of the statewide faculty union, the United Faculty of Florida, pointed out, the increased pressure on community colleges comes at a time when they, too, have “been denied tuition raise authority by Governor Crist.”
Amid all this debate, at least one major policy change has already been approved this year: After initially calling the legislation “doomed,” Governor Crist did an about-face and signed a differential tuition measure into law June 27, clearing the way for increased tuition rates at the Universities of Florida and South Florida, and Florida State University, starting with their fall 2008 freshman classes. Historically, state statutes have kept tuition rates consistent across the public universities.
But that substantial victory for Florida universities is already fading from the spotlight as the next phase of the tuition battles begin. “The next 12 to 18 months are going to be very interesting in Florida higher education,” Dorn said in a telephone interview Thursday. The lawsuit, he said, likely won't be definitively decided upon until it reaches the state's Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Board of Governors’ plan to increase tuition this spring is ricocheting like “a shot across the bow.”
“Senate President Pruitt is obviously not pleased with the Board of Governors signing on to the lawsuit,” Dorn said. “Until there is a decision on the lawsuit, the university system is more vulnerable to legislative responses in next year’s budget.”
Although on the other hand, he added, legislators have their constituents, among them parents and students, to answer to, and, regardless of inter-governmental strife, may be sensitive to the reality that, “the higher the state appropriation, the lower the tuition hike is going to be.”
The fact that Florida's statewide scholarship program, Bright Futures, is tied to tuition costs, has also been a complicating factor in this debate, as the legislature has a vested interest in keeping tuition rates low in order to keep the cost of the program manageable. The approval of the differential tuition legislation was significant, however, in untying Bright Futures from tuition costs to some extent, said Dan Holsenbeck, vice president for university relations at the University of Central Florida.
In the coming years, Bright Futures winners, who currently receive 75 to 100 percent of tuition and fees, depending on their grade point average, would have to make up the difference in tuition costs if they attend one of the three universities that gained permission to raise their rates above the state baseline.
"That's very significant," Holsenbeck said. "One of the real long-range challenges that we have in Bright Futures is because it was a circular deal, you raise tuition, you have to raise Bright Futures."
“I think that the legislature has really made an effort to address some of these issues in higher education,” he added. “They have not had all the resources to address it to the extent that they wanted to and we wanted them to.”
“It comes down to the fact that students at UF are looking to receive a quality education when they come,” said Ryan Moseley, student body president at the University of Florida and member of the Board of Governors. Though originally predisposed to reject a tuition increase, as most students would be, he and other student leaders came around – and found through a survey that their classmates too were generally supportive of tuition increases as long as they had say over where that money would go.
“UF here in Florida has the lowest tuition in the nation,” Moseley said. “It’s not unreasonable to say that we need to be looking to the future.”
Bright or not.