Higher education task force considers big changes, higher tuition

When Gov. Rick Scott brushed aside intense lobbying from state universities and vetoed a tuition increase earlier this year, he created a blue ribbon panel to identify ways to make the state’s higher education system more efficient.

Their answer? Proposals similar to those Scott vetoed, including tuition increases and even higher fees for students with majors that will lead to high-paying jobs.

Under one proposal, released this week by Scott’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Higher Education, university funding would be determined by how well individual schools meet accountability benchmarks, including a measurement of how many graduating students find jobs.

The latter recommendation could help assuage Scott, who wrote in a veto message this spring he was hesitant to hike tuition on students without “a more detailed plan” to ensure they get a good return on investment. The task force’s recommendations are more likely to become law if Scott throws his weight behind them, or even steers them through the Legislature.

“The governor has been clear that higher education should hold the line on tuition increases and that higher education funding must be connected to better outcomes for students in terms of their ability to get a job, earn a good income and grow Florida’s economy,” spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said, after reviewing the draft report.

The committee tweaked its preliminary findings during a conference call Friday, and will meet twice more before a final report goes to the governor Oct. 30.

During their talks Friday, committee members seemed in sync on most of their recommendations, although some debated whether to prioritize performance measures over tuition increases when they present their ideas to the governor.

“It’s difficult to imagine an increase in funding absent the concerns that have been addressed by the Legislature,” said Dale Brill, chair of the committee and president of the Florida Chamber Foundation. “There are political limitations, and we would have our heads in the sand if we did not read some tea leaves.”

Among the more controversial recommendations, the panel may propose shedding the current 15 percent cap on yearly tuition hikes, instead allowing schools to set their own rates within confines set by the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system.

If Florida schools want to offer nationally competitive programs and retain good faculty and students, they need the power to raise tuition to least to the national average of about $8,000, panelists agreed.

Annual tuition is $6,170 at the University of Florida and is $6,403 at Florida State University, the state’s two leading research universities. In contrast, tuition at the University of Maryland is $8, 909 and $16,006 at Pennsylvania State University, according to the report.

“The only way you’re going to keep your best and brightest in the state is if you offer the best universities,” said Republican state Rep. Bill Proctor, a panelist who is also chancellor at Flagler College in St. Augustine. “We ought to know how many of our high scoring are leaving the state if we can track it.”

Under one proposal, the Legislature would budget a lump sum for higher education funding. The money would then be divided by Board of Governors based on performance measures.

“Without the power to set tuition ... you’re simply saying you’re responsible for the system but you can’t put your foot on the gas pedal and you can’t hold the steering wheel,” Proctor said.