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Panel: Base Florida Tuitions on Degrees

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Rick Scott’s higher education task force tentatively agreed Wednesday on recommendations that include basing tuition on the type of degree a student is seeking and letting “preeminent universities” set higher rates.

The seven-member panel rejected proposals for making it goal to reach the national average in state university funding Florida ranks near the bottom and giving the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 public universities, lump-sum budgeting authority.

Instead, the Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform settled on less specific language calling for more university spending and greater budgeting power for the board.

“Budgetary control … is critical to being able to really exercise that authority and to really get the attention of the universities and the presidents to BOG as the governing institution under the constitution,” said Joseph Caruncho, who’s also a board member.

The task force plans to finalize its recommendations to Scott and the Legislature next week although they’re not due until Nov. 15.

The panel also came out for giving the board a direct role in searching for and hiring university presidents. It now is limited to approving choices made by each university’s board of trustees, which task force members characterized as “rubber stamping.”

The Legislature now can raise base tuition rates while the board can approve additional increases for each school, but the total cannot exceed 15 percent in a given year.

Before setting up the task force, Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed the top two research schools, the University of Florida and Florida State University, to exceed that cap.

In his veto message, Scott asked for a more detailed plan to ensure students and taxpayers would get a return for the additional tuition expense.

The tentative recommendation says the board would designate preeminent universities that could charge higher tuition rates based on performance goals and metrics Scott himself suggested.

These include the percentages of graduates who find employment or continue their educations, graduates’ salaries and the number of degrees awarded in areas of strategic emphasis. Other criteria are the costs for and to each graduate.

Charging different tuition rates for various degree programs could be used to encourage students to enter those fields deemed to be of strategic importance to the state’s needs and economy by offering lower rates.

The panel also tentatively agreed to recommend that tuition not be increased for the next three years, or until the state’s unemployment rate drops below 7 percent, for degrees in high-skill, high-demand or high-wage areas. The state’s unemployment rate was 8.7 percent in September.

Task force chairman Dale Brill, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation, objected to setting a goal of reaching the national average for state university spending, calling it “arbitrary.”

State Rep. Bill Proctor, though, argued the state needs to stop embracing “a low-tuition philosophy” or else lower its expectations.

“How are we going to be positioned against the competition?” the St. Augustine Republican asked. “Are we going to ignore that competition and say we’ll just do the best we can with lowest funding we can afford, or are we going to say that we have expectations for our institutions that are going to require more funding?”

The panel then agreed to recommend state funding and tuition should be comparable to expectations.

The lump-sum budgeting proposal likewise gave way to a recommendation for simply expanding the board’s funding and/or budgetary control. The intent is let the board speak for the entire system when it comes to making budget requests to the Legislature to sidetrack lobbying by the universities for their pet projects.

Scott appointed Brill but other task force members were named by board and legislative leaders.

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