Universities need flexibility to offset state funding cuts

December 1, 2012. “The low tuition policy that has prevailed over decades in Florida has impaired the development of the university system and the state’s economy to an incalculable extent.”

By William Proctor | Guest columnist, Orlando Sentinel

November 30, 2012

Column justifies differential tuition: Universities need flexibility to offset state funding cuts

In opening remarks to the Florida House of Representatives last January, Speaker Dean Cannon warned that Florida’s higher education system is “racing toward mediocrity.” Now, 11 months later, the system confronts hurdles of increasing proportion.

Florida’s public universities have experienced and continue to confront serious reductions in state funding. Governing magazine reported in its June edition that Florida’s universities have lost 25 percent of state support in four years.

These cuts have impaired the quality and development of the State University System. Unfortunately, the universities must contend with two other adverse conditions that compound the damage.

For many years, public universities in Florida have been restricted to charging among the nation’s lowest tuition rates, currently ranked 45th. The state has just one member — the University of Florida — in the Association of American Universities, an organization composed of the nation’s leading public and private research universities. UF has the lowest tuition of any AAU member, about $4,000 below the association’s average.

The low tuition policy that has prevailed over decades in Florida has impaired the development of the university system and the state’s economy to an incalculable extent.

The second adverse condition in Florida is what is essentially a single tuition rate despite significant variances among public universities. Consider just a few: SAT scores ranging from 1463 to 1914; doctorates awarded ranging from zero to 841; and total research expenditures in diversified nonmedical sciences ranging from $4 million to $457 million.

Consequently, institutional missions vary, and should vary. Some of Florida’s public universities have major research obligations, while others are focused primarily on regional concerns. The entire system, however, is underfunded, which accounts in part for why Florida, having a population of about 19 million, has only a single member in the AAU.

In light of such variances, one cannot reasonably explain tuition rates among nine Florida universities that have a range of no more than $6,050 to $6,420. (Two schools in the state system, Florida A&M and New College, are outliers.)

Compare Florida’s tuition range with that among Virginia’s 14 public institutions, which range from $6,680 to $13,184. Virginia’s span is, by far, more common. Florida’s policy appears to be uniquely its own.

Thus, Florida’s public universities must not only confront major reductions in state support; they must also contend with one of the nation’s lowest tuition rates and a tuition schedule that fails to accommodate major variances among them. One would be hard pressed to design a financial policy more suited to win the “race to mediocrity.”

A variety of solutions has been proposed. These solutions include privatization; a less severe separation from state control that would make universities “state related”; and tuition that differs based on the course of study. Of the three, differentiated tuition seems most appropriate for Florida’s state universities at this time.

Examples of differentiated tuition policies as practiced in other states include the University of Texas at Austin, which charges liberal arts majors $9,346 and business majors $10,738. The University of Wisconsin has a base tuition of $10,580, but adds $1,000 for undergraduate business and $1,400 for undergraduate engineering. The University of Pittsburgh’s tuition for in-state students ranges from $15,582 to $19,802, with higher rates for dental, medicine, nursing, health and rehabilitative services.

Differentiated tuition, however, may be only an initial step toward some mode of state-related status or privatization. For now, it’s the most reasonable and least radical option.

William Proctor is chancellor of Flagler College and a former Republican member of the Florida House from St. Augustine