TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida's universities are looking to make a deal with state lawmakers on tuition increases.
University presidents from across Florida lined up at the state Capitol and promised that they will guarantee no tuition increases next year if the state Legislature sets aside an extra $118 million for the schools.
The $118 million represents the same amount of money that would be generated if universities raised tuition 15 percent, as they've done in recent years.
Florida universities argue the Legislature has cut their funding nearly 40 percent over the past five years.
University of North Florida President John Delaney said now it's time for lawmakers to stop that trend and invest more money in higher education.
"The system is underfunded and the source of that money is of secondary regard to the universities. The question is it's underfunded compared to the rest of the country, approximately 30 percent is spent less in Florida than compared to the national average on each student and the series of cuts that we've faced in the last few years has made it more and more difficult for students to graduate."
Universities say the state used to pay for 75 percent of the cost of a student's education. Now they say state funding represents less than half of that cost at most universities.
University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft said the proposed funding is crucial for her school.
"That will mean, especially for the University of South Florida, so much more because one in five of our students are first-time college students and we have the students that need that state support. So not raising tuition is really, really, really key for the University of South Florida."
University of West Florida President Judy Bense said universities are spending tax dollars more efficiently -- that they've learned to do more with less as funding shrunk in recent years.
Bense said a new investment of $118 million should be tied to performance goals to make sure taxpayers get their money's worth.
"We want to be held accountable. An increased investment in our universities should be tied to specific goals such as higher graduation rates to ensure the maximum return on investment of taxpayer dollars. Accountability makes us better universities that will better serve our students and communities in our state."
Florida Student Association President Cortez Whatley is calling on university students to take action in support of the campaign for more state funding called "Aim Higher."
"For the sake of Florida students, businesses and the communities that we live in, we need to keep a college education affordable and accessible to all. I along with our university student government leaders have joined with our presidents this day to encourage the state of Florida to aim higher, by investing in our future, by investing in our students."
House Democratic Leader Rep. Perry Thurston calls it "regretful" that the Republican-controlled Legislature has put university presidents in the position of having to beg for more money.
"If you look at the substantial cuts over the years, we've put those presidents in that position to come to us and make those requests and clearly they're making it the best way they can. They can't come and complain because then they'll get cut more. So we've put them in that position and that's horrible."
Universities are under increasing pressure to minimize tuition hikes after raising tuition the maximum 15 percent over the past several years.
Gov. Rick Scott said he wants to make college more affordable. Earlier this year, he vetoed a bill that would have allowed the University of Florida and Florida State to raise tuition rates as much as they wanted as part of market approach to the issue.
First Coast News