For rising University of Florida sophomore Carlos Garcia, the news is sobering: His tuition bill will be 15 percent higher this fall.
“This very much affects me,” says Garcia, 18, who is majoring in pre-med and biology.
Going to school partly with money he earned from a retail job, Garcia has hardly been a spendthrift. But now, confronting a tuition bill that could exceed $6,000, Garcia is even more concerned about his immediate financial fortunes.
“It means that everything is going to be tougher for me than I thought when I first got here,” says Garcia.
The tuition increase at UF—one of 11 public universities in Florida to win the approval of the state’s Board of Governors to tack a “tuition differential” of 7 percent onto an 8 percent increase already approved by the state legislature—comes in response to an unprecedented reduction of some $340 million in state spending for higher education.
“We’ve seen other cuts in the past,” observes Michael Brawer, CEO of the Association of Florida Colleges. “But this one has been particularly tough.” Continues Brawer: “We are now in an environment where everything is being viewed with a jaundiced eye and every single dollar is closely scrutinized.”
The total state education cut, including K-12 spending, proposed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott amounted to more than $4.6 billion. The governor has argued that the funding reductions were necessary in the face of a more than $4 billion budget deficit he inherited.
“The governor promised to create more jobs in the private sector in order to get our economy back on track,” notes Scott spokesman Lane Wright.
“But to do that he has had to make tough choices like balancing the budget in order to create a good environment to grow businesses,” Wright continues.
Florida’s budget woes have been framed within the larger context of the national recession, yet Florida’s heady real estate market was hit particularly hard.
“When something as big as a state’s entire real estate market either slows down or stops altogether, it’s going to create big problems,” notes Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers. “And that’s exactly what has happened in Florida.”
Florida’s top-heavy housing market—with thousands of homes mortgaged above their asking price—has resulted in the highest mortgage delinquency rates in the nation.
To make matters worse, most of the more than $11 billion in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Florida received has been spent.
To compensate for the absence of new stimulus dollars, Scott has emphasized reducing expenditures and included in his proposal a reduction of more than $217 million in state university education and research spending, as well as $123 million less for Florida’s state colleges and vocational programs.
At Miami Dade College, overall state funding has fallen by just over 27 percent.
“All capital outlay funding was vetoed by the governor,” notes Dr. Rolando Montoya, the provost of Miami Dade College, where $6.7 million in state money for the renovation of the school’s Hialeah campus was pulled along with $3.6 million for general college-wide renovation and remodeling purposes.
“The college continues doing more with less,” says Montoya, adding that the school is trying to keep the budget cuts “out of the classroom, as best as possible.”
Despite such challenges, things could be worse, contends Brawer of the AFC, which represents Florida’s 28 community colleges.
“We did not get hit as hard as the university sector and the K-12 sector,” continues Brawer. “And that’s largely because the legislature recognized the role community colleges and state colleges play in economic and workforce development.”
Even so, community colleges in Florida took roughly a 2 percent cut in state support. “And we received no new money to offset the $60 [million] to $70 million we lost in stimulus funding,” says Brawer.
For the state’s universities, the prospects appear to be even bleaker, the primary reason why those schools pushed for a tuition increase this summer.
“Fifteen percent is being used to cover up reductions in state support that would have been enough if we had the baseline of support,” UF President Bernie Machen told the Board of Governors as he argued for the tuition increase. “We are using the 15 percent to keep from sinking,” Machen added.
Machen went on to suggest that a case could even be made for upping UF’s tuition to $10,000 a year, noting that, if the school is expected to recruit and retain quality faculty, it will need the money to do so.
“You have to remember that this isn’t the first year we’ve been hit with a reduction in state funding,” says Janine Sikes, director of public relations at UF.
“Just our university alone has faced some $190 million in cuts over the last four or five years,” continues Sikes, “along with the $30 million loss in state funding this year.”
Despite the funding loss, UF is trying to put together a plan that will allow for a 3 percent raise for both faculty and staff.
It’s a plan that UF philosophy professor Tom Auxter, president of United Faculty of Florida, thinks the school almost has to embrace in order to maintain faculty recruitment and retention.
“Five years ago we were last in the nation in terms of faculty salaries and were already seeing people leaving Florida at the rate of about 14 percent per year,” says Auxter. “Now, this most recent round of budget cuts is only going to make that situation worse.”
Continues Auxter: “A person who has been offered a faculty position in Florida often will ask an insider about tenure and promotion in the future, and the answer they get is ‘You better get a good starting salary and you better like that salary, because that salary is going to be the one you will have for a long time.’”
“It’s called ‘salary compression,’” adds Auxter. “The longer you are in Florida, the worse your salary is in comparison with your counterparts in other states.”
Such trends may make tuition increases in the Sunshine State even more popular with education leaders and legislators in the future, thinks SHEEO’s Lingenfelter.
Surveying 2005 to 2010, Lingenfelter noticed that tuition in Florida has been only 62 percent of the national average. During that same time period, Florida in-state appropriations decreased by 19 percent, compared to a national state-by-state average of 3 percent.
“It may well be,” says Lingenfelter, “that decision-makers in Florida have said and will continue to say ‘We can charge more.’”
If that proves to be the case, says Garcia, “there will be students who will have to leave school because they can no longer afford it.”
For now, Garcia himself is determined to stay: “These kinds of things don’t help, but my education is too important for me to give up, even if the tuition goes up again.”