Florida leaders to lower differential tuition rate cap

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Differences in tuition rates between Florida universities could fall from 15 percent to 6 percent, if the Legislature accepts a proposal put forward by Republicans House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz.

The two leaders introduced the measure as part of their “Work Plan Florida 2014″ program laid this week. Universities would see a drop in “differential tuition” rates charged to students, according to Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Gaetz and Weatherford’s proposal is supposed to reduce the costs of prepaid tuition plans, which provide parents a way to lock in tuition rates for children to attend state colleges and universities.

A 2009 differential tuition law assumes an increase in tuition rates of 15 percent every year.

The change “will dramatically reduce the cost of what is now an unaffordable and out-of-reach Florida prepaid plan for our citizens and for the middle class,” Weatherford said to reporters in Tallahassee during the annual legislative planning meeting hosted by the Associated Press.

Weatherford says the only real effect of lowering the cap would be a possible increase in prepaid plans. Gov. Rick Scott insisted the Board of Governors oppose university requests for differential increases; it led schools to stop requesting funds last year.

“Universities aren’t raising their tuition 15 percent,” Weatherford added, “so by lowering that cap to 6, we make every day, middle-class Floridians able to afford a prepaid contract.”

Low-cost tuition remains one of the governor’s top priorities for the Florida’s higher education system, where last year he vetoed a tuition increase approved by the Legislature. Weatherford and Gaetz also pledged not to raise tuition rates.

Weatherford joined Republican House members in pushing the hike in 2013, and he said the rise this year was a yield to Scott, Larrabee writes.

“To me, whether it comes from tuition or the state,” Weatherford said, “we need more investment in our higher education system.”

In a statement Thursday, the new university system head, Chancellor Marshall Criser, highlighted the prepaid section of the GOP proposal.

“With the recovery of Florida’s economy,” Criser said, “we have reached the point where it is appropriate to calibrate the value of higher education and Florida’s approach for funding it.”

“One apparent benefit of the 2014 work plan,” he added, “is to realistically price the Florida Prepaid scholarships. As Floridians see them to be more affordable, it encourages our families to invest in the education of our students.”

What is not clear is if whether universities will accept the proposal. Some complained about a clampdown on tuition. A University of Florida official told the News Service by email that the school couldn’t comment without more information.

In 2009, then-Gov. Charlie Crist signed the bill on differential tuition, during a debate by the Board of Governors and legislators over who had a right to adjust tuition rates. A lawsuit and Supreme Court ruling followed last year saying the Legislature has the ultimate right to raise tuition.

At that time, the board withdrew from the lawsuit, citing an agreement between legislative leaders and Crist in 2010.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.