After years of lobbying, Florida’s top research institutions at last seemed poised to gain control of their historically low tuition rates, deflated by state statutes keeping tuition costs consistent across the public universities. In early May, the Legislature passed a bill that would grant the University of Florida and Florida State University the ability to charge 40 percent more than other state universities, with the University of South Florida able to hike tuition by 30 percent above the baseline – in all cases with the caveat that tuition couldn’t increase by more than 15 percent each year. “We’d never gotten this far before,” said Steve Orlando, spokesman for the University of Florida, which has lobbied for the authority to increase its tuition – set around $3,300 for state residents – to enhance its national competitiveness for at least three years now.
But Gov. Charlie Crist left little in doubt about his plans for the tuition differentiation bill Thursday, calling it “doomed.” And he went one step further, vetoing 5 percent tuition hikes called for in the Legislature's budget, effectively freezing all Florida university and community college tuition at current rates. The low-tuition model – which, though of course premised on access, is attacked for inhibiting investments in quality -- is, it seems, safe in Florida for at least another year. (Higher tuition models, on the other hand, typically attempt to achieve access goals by collecting higher tuition rates from full-paying students, who in turn subsidize not only improvements, but also aid for low-income students.)
"Students and families are already suffering under high property taxes, high insurance rates, and high gas prices,” Governor Crist, a Republican, said of his vetoes. “I feel for them. They don't need higher tuition, too -- not now."
Echoing the need to be careful stewards of cash-strapped families’ tax dollars, Crist also vetoed about $459 million in spending in the coming year's $71.5 billion budget, slashing a number of higher education initiatives in the process. “[W]e anticipate a tight budget year and must live within our means,” Crist wrote in a message  accompanying his 11-page veto list , containing funds for a variety of higher education projects including (among others) a nursing simulation lab facility at Broward Community College, a performing arts hall at Lake Sumter Community College, an allied health building at Valencia Community College, a pharmacy building at Florida A&M University, nursing education at Florida Southern College and Barry University, the Sylvester Cancer Center at the University of Miami and the University of Tampa forensic science program.
Needless to say, higher education officials in Florida are unhappy with the vetoes. Facing stagnant tuition rates for the first time in a decade, they’re even considering a legal challenge questioning whether the governor has the authority to veto the tuition increases as they were written into the legislature’s budget. “Our initial reaction is extreme disappointment,” said Diane McCain, director of external relations for the Board of Governors and the State University System of Florida. “For our university system to continue to excel, money is an integral part of that.” The chance of the legislature overriding the veto on tuition rates, she added, seems to be fairly low.
McCain said that though there is initial discussion of a legal challenge, no decisions have yet been made. The next Board of Governor’s meeting where members can discuss the veto will not be held until June 12. "In the meantime, both staff within the legislature and the Board of Governors and the university staff are reviewing case law and the statutes regarding the governor's veto power," McCain said.
On the community college front, the veto of the tuition hikes hits especially hard, said Jeff S. Allbritten, president of Collier Campus at Edison College and president of the Florida Association of Community Colleges -- if only because of the sheer number of Florida community college students any tuition increase would be multiplied by. About 1 million students are in the system, said Allbritten, whose own college charges about $70 a credit hour or about $1,700 for a full-time student a year. Over the past few years, tuition increases have ranged from between 3 and 7 percent. “So this wasn’t out of line, it wouldn’t have been an anomaly," Allbritten said.
“We’re concerned. I can tell you that every college right now is taking a pause. Obviously our budget-planning process is in its finalized stages.... We’re putting things on a short-term hold, taking a breath, looking at where we can find some savings and hoping this will be looked at again in the special session” (of the legislature, scheduled for June 12).
“It’s back to the drawing board,” said Orlando of the University of Florida, which planned to use extra funds to hire 200 faculty and 100 academic advisers. “The bottom line is if you look at just about any comparison across the board, nationally, we charge just dirt-cheap tuition.”
"That’s fine from a student affordability standpoint; I can understand the argument there,” Orlando said. “But it doesn’t allow you to make the changes that are necessary to give the quality of education the flagship university should be able to provide.”