In the last decade, there’s been only a handful of significant student demonstrations at USF. But last November, in a scene that could have come from a documentary of campus activity during the late 1960s, several dozen students, some affiliated with the group Students for a Democratic Society (the most radical student organization of that era), held a rally in front of Cooper Hall on the Tampa campus. They then began marching to the Patel Center, the administration building that houses the office of school president Judy Genshaft.
Chanting “Judy got paid off, we got ripped off,” the students, inspired by the Occupy movement, were protesting the gap between Genshaft’s annual salary (which at a base of $400,700 puts her in the top 10 percent of her colleagues in the country) and the rise in tuition costs — 15 percent annually at all state universities, with the possibility of increases continuing into the next decade.
But despite the revolutionary rhetoric in the air, the tension was defused when the students arrived at the Patel Center, where they were greeted by a smiling Dwayne Smith, along with a coterie of administration officials. USF’s senior vice provost played the genial host, substituting for Genshaft (who that day was dealing with a Board of Governors meeting on whether to allow USF-Polytechnic in Lakeland to go independent), and the presumptively warring bodies held a respectful give-and-take that lasted for 90 minutes.
The most recent rate hikes occurred after the Board of Governors and USF Board of Trustees authorized a tuition increase of 7 percent on top of an increase of 8 percent approved by the State Legislature in May, increasing the average full-time student’s tuition bill by approximately $600 a year. It was the third straight year of such an increase, and the fourth year of at least 14 percent.
Angered by these increases, many of the students who marched in USF last fall are planning to stage a protest in Tallahassee next week when the FL Legislature opens its next session.
The problem is, these students are getting a bargain, at least compared to the rest of the country. Tuition at Florida’s public universities now ranks 45th nationally, with an average of $4,886 per year. At USF it’s $5,626 annually; nationwide, in-state tuition and fees at four-year public universities average $8,244, says the College Board.
USF junior Dani Leppo says she understands tuition is lower here than virtually everywhere else, but says “we’re low everywhere else in terms of cost of living.” She laments that working-class families, first-generation college students and people who don’t have support systems are being left out in the cold in terms of getting a college education.
But Governor Rick Scott and the state Legislature don’t particularly want to hear about it.
Daytona Beach GOP state Senator Evelyn Lynn, who chairs the Budget Subcommittee on Higher Education Appropriations, can only be sympathetic to a point. She says that over the years students have asked her that fees be included to pay for programs like transportation and green initiatives. That may not mean they want tuition increased, but the senator doesn’t see it that way. “That’s not the position that these students have presented to me over the years.”
Tico Perez, who serves as the chairman of the Budget Committee on the state Board of Governors, is emphatic that “nobody wants to raise tuition. If we could deliver or continue to offer quality education without raising tuition, we would be thrilled to do that, but that’s not the case.”
But some state lawmakers have explicitly stated that they want FL state schools’ tuition to be raised. St. Augustine House Republican Bill Proctor proposed in a letter last summer that up to three state universities be allowed a “major increase in tuition [more than 15 percent] in order that these institutions might attain the national tuition average at an earlier date.” University of Florida President Bernie Machen has publicly discussed 30 percent rate hikes.
St. Petersburg House Democrat Rick Kriseman acknowledges that university students have been getting a deal, and that the low tuition can threaten a university’s bottom line: “My concern is I don’t want to see us losing quality professors.” Still, he says, it’s a difficult balance in tough economic times.
Educators, students and Tallahassee Democrats all believe that the state Legislature, which has been firmly in Republican hands for over 15 years now, deserves more of the blame for the university system’s budget woes than low tuition rates.
Nine days after their confab with administrators in November, USF members of Students for A Democratic Society met again with them for a follow-up on their demands (which also included that Board of Trustees meetings regarding finance be held only when a quorum of two thirds of students were on campus; that a union neutrality and card check clause be implemented for any contracts with food service employees; and that a contract with food service vendors include a commitment for 20 percent “real food” that is locally based by 2020). At that time, administrators brought out USF student body officials who supported the most recent hike to talk turkey with their college classmates.
Khalid Hassouneh, 21, is the student senate president at USF. He says flat out that the bottom line is that “the state of Florida needs to make an investment in its future generations if we want to keep qualified trained professionals in the state.” And he mentions the obvious dilemma for students: that while the state is calling for consecutive tuition increases, legislators are concurrently decreasing state funding of the system. “So we’re not only paying more tuition, we’re also receiving less money for each institution.”
That’s empirically true. PolitiFact reported in March that in 1990, general tax revenues in the state funded 71 percent of per-student costs while tuition covered just 18 percent. In 2010, taxes funded 49 percent of per-student costs, and tuition covered 40 percent. They calculated that in inflation-adjusted dollars, per-student funding of the state university system from general revenue has dropped by about $3,000.
Meanwhile, as tuition continues to increase, the state’s budget issues have led the legislature to continue to cut funding to the Bright Futures scholarship program. Some of the student activism in December has been directed toward Governor Scott, who has made clear that he wants to make college administrators and professors as accountable as public school districts.
The governor has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t understand why the universities are raising tuition so often. In October he told conservative talk show host Bob Rose that he didn’t understand “why education has to continue to cost more money each year.”
As he continues to strive to make the state the job creation engine of the country, the governor has gotten more involved in state universities’ affairs. He made headlines when he asked, “Do we need to use your tax dollars to educate more people that can’t get jobs in anthropology?” adding that he wants colleges and universities to graduate more students from in-demand areas in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
Though the sentiment appeared to be close to his heart (his daughter has an anthropology degree and reputedly has been unable to get a job in her field), acccording to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data, job prospects for anthropologists are nearly as strong as they are for the math and science grads. But you get the idea.
St. Pete Democrat Rick Kriseman agrees with Scott that there is a need to try to graduate more students in the STEMS areas, but says there are lots of successful businesspeople who don’t have backgrounds in those disciplines. “I get nervous when somebody with no higher education background whatsoever starts trying to tell higher education what’s in their best interest and how they should be doing it,” adding that the state needs to get kids interested in those subject areas when they’re younger. By the time they get to college, he says, “it’s too late.”
What’s much more alarming to many legislators and academics is Scott’s interest in scrutinizing college professors and presidents on accountability measures. In October, he posed a list of 17 questions to all state university presidents, asking questions about what their institutions have done to meet “the needs of employers,” and what measurable goals they’re using for students after they graduate.
He’s also raised the eyebrows of more than a few legislators and educators with talk of exploring reforms in higher education that would be modeled on what his good buddy Rick Perry has attempted in Texas, though the emphasis should be on “attempted.” Scott was reported over the summer to be sharing copies of a report on proposed reforms in the Lone Star State that came from a conservative think tank called the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Among their recommendations: assess professors based on their monetary value to a university.
But as state Senator Evelyn Lynn notes, Texas never actually adopted those proposals, so “saying it’s a great plan when they haven’t really adopted it is of some concern,” she said in an understatement. In fact, Governor Perry only attempted to implement the Solutions plan at his alma mater of Texas A&M, where opposition there quashed the entire enterprise.
Wesley Chapel Republican Will Weatherford, who becomes House Speaker after the upcoming legislative session, has said that higher education will be a strong focus of the legislature in coming years. Weatherford (who did not return CL’s calls for comment) has publicly supported some of Scott’s ideas regarding STEM, but has also said that he doesn’t want to take anything away from the liberal arts.
On that item, Gregory McColm agrees. The spokesman for the United Faculty of Florida chapter at USF says one thing that has not become more expensive in recent years is spending on the liberal arts. “You want to talk about spending money?” he asks. “STEM costs money. Liberal arts are cheap. You’re only going to get nickels and dimes from cutting down on that.” Some state officials have been talking about improving education in order to make Florida more of a magnet for high-tech companies.
But McColm says that’s somewhat laughable. “You get what you paid for,” he says, comparing the state’s investments in higher education to places like California and Massachusetts. “We have a state government that has no idea what higher education actually looks like.”
He maintains that if legislators are serious about promoting the I-4 corridor as an engine for high-tech jobs, they have to devote resources toward that. “We’re talking about building up USF and UCF into major research institutions that can directly compete with some of the top-notch places like Chapel Hill or Amherst. There is no way you’re going to get anything other than derisive laughter [from prospective businesses] with the kind of money that the Legislature is talking about.”
In other words, students attending USF next year and in the future can expect to keep on paying more to attend school — and keep on praying that the state’s economic woes turn around so that Tallahassee’s words are backed up by actions.