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each school. Instead, the next year, distrustful voters approved
a newBoard of Governors, ostensibly to run the universities
independently of both the legislature and the governor.
It didn’t work out that way. Bush stacked the new board
with political allies, including a conservative radio talk show
host. It had the distinction of being, according to consultants
hired by the board itself, “the least-experienced higher
education entity in the country.”
Meanwhile, legislators continued to demand new branch
campuses, which the consultants (from the Connecticut-based
Pappas Consulting Group) found were undersized and overly
expensive but were politically popular.The Board of Governors
approved newmedical schools at Florida International
University and at the University of Central Florida, in addition
to the two that already existed and the one at the University
of Miami, for which the state provides financial support.The
price was so high, the consultants said, it could have paid for up
to five new universities.
A prepaid tuition program locked in the cost of tuition,
fees and housing from the time a family opened an account.
And a much-heralded new scholarship program to be paid for
with lottery proceeds, Bright Futures, was launched to reward
students whomet certain academic criteria with up to full
tuition at a public university, whether or not they had financial
need for it.These things also were wildly popular with voters,
as was Florida’s consistently low public university tuition, which
remains the cheapest in America—from$3,400 to $4,000 a
year, depending on the campus. But the consultants proved to
be killjoys at the party. “All of these economic decisions, while
fueled inmany ways with good intentions, will bankrupt the
state’s higher education system,” they warned soberly.
In fact, Bright Futures, which one Florida newspaper called
a middle-class entitlement program, will cost $436million
this year, even as falling discretionary income has left lottery
revenues flat. It is so expensive that it has drainedmoney from
need-based financial aid, which now accounts for barely 20
percent of all state tuition assistance.That puts Florida 42nd
among the 50 states in the availability of need-based financial
aid. And one in five students now at Florida universities and
colleges has a prepaid tuition contract, meaning their tuition
cannot be raisedmore than 6.5 percent per year.
Tuition itself has been the thorniest problemof all.
Legislators haven’t wanted to increase it, because every time
tuition goes up, they have to spendmore on the ravenous
Bright Futures scholarships. As for the governor, Bush’s
successor, Charlie Crist, vetoed a proposed five percent
tuition increase just two years ago. It was the wrong time to
raise tuition, he said, when residents were facing increases in
property taxes, insurance rates and gas prices. In response to
criticism about the veto fromuniversity presidents, he told an
interviewer they could hand over their jobs to someone else.
Crist has since changed his position in the face of the
widening hole in his budget, allowing a “premium tuition
increase” of up to 15 percent for Florida State, the University
of Florida, and three other of the largest public universities.
Flanked by the mollified presidents, he has also announced
his support for extending the same tuition flexibility to the rest
of the campuses, letting them raise their own tuition by up
to 15 percent a year until it reaches the national average.The
University of Florida, for instance, which
now charges $3,788 a year, would reach
the national average tuition of $6,900 by
2015, bringing in about $21million in new
revenue. For an average student, the cost of
attending a Florida public university next
year would go up $370. In all, the plan would
raise $1.5 billion over seven years, and nearly
a third of that would be earmarked for need-
based financial aid.
The proposal is awaiting action by
the legislature, and a ruling in a typically
Floridian lawsuit over who exactly has the
right to set tuition, the legislature or the
Board of Governors.There also is concern that lawmakers
will use the money from tuition increases to supplant, rather
than enhance, its state appropriations—a bait and switch
about which the loudest warnings have come fromSenator
Bob Graham, a former governor and a longtime advocate of
higher education. After all, Graham said, that’s what happened
when they decided to use lottery proceeds to pay for public
education. Instead of supplementing the state appropriation for
schools, the lottery revenues replaced it.
Resistance to increased tuition is lessening. As growing
numbers of middle-class high school graduates started to
be turned away by their first-choice four-year universities,
Floridians surveyed last year said they were willing to pay more
to keep the campuses afloat.
Nodding toward the window of his office, Wetherell used
a favorite example: His grandson goes to private kindergarten
“right here in Tallahassee, for $8,000 a year,” more than twice
what it costs to go to Florida State. “I don’t care who you are—
liberal, conservative—you can’t run a major research university
on half a kindergarten tuition.” Students, he said, who pay more
for their cell phones than for their educations, were willing to
shoulder more of the burden.
Opinion was slightly more
mixed outside on the campus.
“Students need to step back and
realize it’s not as bad as it could
be,” said Sarah Benvenisty, a
freshman whose parents have a
prepaid tuition account and who
also receives a Bright Futures
scholarship. It’s also cheap to live
in Tallahassee, her friend, Aaron
Saltz chimed in. Still, he said, as the
recession deepens, an increase will
not be easy for students or their
parents to pay. “No one has money
anymore. And we don’t have time
to work.”
AsiaWilliams, a junior, agreed.
“We just don’t have the money,”
she said. “We’ll have to turn to
loans, which will bury us deeper,”
her classmate Michol Wimberly
added. “Cut it from something
else. Not education. That’s how you
Community college
enrollment in Florida
is up 14 percent in
the last two years, to
more than 800,000
students, even as
funding plummets.
“A lot of people come here just because it’s
cheaper,” says Ricardo Chirito, a freshman
who chose Miami Dade over more expensive
Florida International University.
Len Kaufman, Black Star, for CrossTalk