Just one barrier placed against poor and working students from affording a higher education. This policy is a damn shame.
Tens of thousands of students who expect free tuition at three of Florida's largest state universities under the Bright Futures scholarships would have to pay additional tuition -- as much as $1,000 a year -- under an overhaul plan moving through the Legislature.
The hikes would apply at the state's top research schools -- the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida. The schools argue that Bright Futures and the Florida Prepaid program have hemmed in needed tuition increases, restricting the revenue they need to achieve national standing.
The fix the universities are pitching is an additional charge that would bypass the two programs and hit students' pockets directly.
''It's time that we turn the corner on education,'' said bill sponsor Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Cross Creek Republican, adding that everyone says Florida needs a more competitive university system. ``That talk's fine, but it's time to take some action.''
The hikes have a major opponent: Gov. Charlie Crist. He says he will consider vetoing the plan because he opposes any tuition increase this year. But lawmakers are pushing ahead, setting up a potential showdown with the popular governor.
''I think it would be unfair to increase the burden on students and their families to get a higher education in the state of Florida,'' Crist said.
The governor and other critics see the plan as the beginning of the end for Florida's low-cost higher education system. Schools like UF, which conceived the idea, argue it's necessary to hire more professors and compete nationally in academics.
''We think this will really hit right at the problem,'' said UF President Bernie Machen, who is campaigning to make UF one of the nation's top-rated public schools, which would require a lower faculty-to-student ratio.
More legislators are starting to agree with the chorus that tuition is too low for the state's top universities to achieve excellence.
Rep. Bill Proctor, a St. Augustine Republican who voted for the bill in a House council, compared the state's tuition to ``putting a boxer in the ring with one arm tied behind his back.''
The proposals essentially work by allowing certain schools to assess an additional charge on top of the base tuition rate, which the Legislature sets. Students who already have Florida Prepaid contracts would be exempt from the surcharge. But Bright Futures, which awards high-achieving high school graduates by covering all or part of their tuition at any state university, would not cover the increase. The fee would be capped at about 40 percent of base tuition.
The Senate bill would allow three research-heavy schools -- UF, FSU and USF -- to charge the fee and would go into effect this fall. The House version would apply only to UF, begin in 2008 at a lower rate, and expand to $1,000 a year in 2012. The Senate bill will be heard on the floor today.
''It puts us on a road where we should be in terms of higher education,'' said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, who helped draft the Senate bill. ``We're setting policy. We're not just giving out money.''
The plan is meeting criticism on several fronts. Some lawmakers say it's a piecemeal approach to solving the real problem of Bright Futures and Prepaid being tied to tuition. Other lawmakers, echoed by universities that wouldn't get the hike, have protested that it rewards research schools to the exclusion of smaller colleges that focus on teaching. Last year the Legislature created a tier system to distinguish universities based on how much research they do.
University of North Florida President John Delaney spoke against the bill this week, saying he objects to classifying universities into tiers if it means some get to charge more tuition than others. ''All 11 universities are short of funding,'' Delaney said, adding that other university presidents who supported the bill as a pilot program are ''disturbed'' that it could apply only to research schools. ``The case for the revenue at the other eight universities is equally compelling.''
But the person many expect to be the biggest critic has yet to speak out. Senate President Ken Pruitt, who famously campaigned around the state by bus in 2003 to protect Bright Futures from cuts, is keeping quiet so far, following his philosophy that legislative leaders shouldn't squash members' ideas.
''I believe that if we want excellence in our university system that we need to give them the resources to get to that next level,'' Pruitt said. But, he added, ``I will never discount the importance of keeping education affordable and accessible.''
Pruitt also objected to the notion that Bright Futures can't sustain regular increases in tuition, saying that the Lottery, which funds the program, gives $1 billion a year to education and that Bright Futures takes up less than $400 million of it.
``There's still plenty of room for Bright Futures to grow.''
There's no doubt that Bright Futures has ballooned, though. State records show that more than 146,000 students this year received a Bright Futures scholarship -- compared to more than 42,000 students in 1997. When first created, the program cost $69.5 million. In the coming year it will cost more than $398 million.
The Florida Prepaid Program lobbied hard to change the original bill to exempt its policyholders from paying it. Allowing each university to charge its own tuition rate would interfere with the way Prepaid works, because the program allows parents to make payments on locked-in tuition that would cover the cost of any state school.
Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican, has consistently voted against the plan in committee. He says he doesn't want to pit schools against each other, though he supports separating Bright Futures and Prepaid from tuition. He said the state university system is a case of ``if it's not broke, don't fix it. The product that we produce belies the fact that we are not spending enough.''
Even if the plans fail, supporters say the effort will help the state reconsider its higher education strategy.
Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state university system, said that for the first time, ``We're looking beyond Bright Futures.''
Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.