House Education Committee hears pitch for caution

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As lawmakers eye increased tuition for some students as a possible answer to the state’s drive to produce more science, technology, engineering and math degrees, college presidents are calling for caution on a variety of fronts, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Testifying before the House Education Committee on Wednesday as it attempts to craft recommendations for overhauling the state’s university system, presidents called for the Legislature to proceed carefully in pushing students toward STEM degrees and using increased tuition to pay for it.

Gov. Rick Scott has been particularly vocal about increasing students trained in science and math, saying it will diversify and boost the state’s economy. House leaders have also signaled they would like to begin considering changes to the state’s universities, in part to meet that goal and in part to increase coordination, as soon as this year.

Because STEM courses can be the most expensive to provide, House Education Chairman Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, and others have floated the idea of “market-based tuition,” potentially increasing the costs for students to pursue those classes.

On Wednesday, University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft pushed back slightly on testimony from other presidents who supported the idea.

“I don’t want to see students that have less of an income not be able to enter a field that they’re talented in,” Genshaft told lawmakers.

Genshaft said PELL grants were critical to Florida students, even as their status is slightly unsettled in the federal budget situation — meaning that if the grants were substantially reduced, “the state of Florida will have a big problem” with ramifications on students with lower incomes.

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Genshaft reiterated that her concerns were not about the practicality of the plan, but the economic impact.

“Of course, it would work,” she said. “But we also have to make sure that students who are financially strapped have the opportunity to pursue the (STEM) programs as well.”

Some lawmakers had similar concerns.

“This Legislature, if it wants to provide more money to our higher education system, tuition’s not the whole problem,” said Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie.

On another angle, University of West Florida President Judy Bense said lawmakers should consider raising the base tuition for universities this year, something Scott has not proposed. Instead, Scott has leaned toward freezing tuition.

“What helps universities like ours the most is when you raise base tuition a little,” Bense said.

Universities now have the ability to raise tuition on their own by up to 15 percent each year, but 30 percent of the money has to go to financial aid and the rest has to be used for undergraduate instruction. That doesn’t leave anything for other needs, like roads, Bense said.

Meanwhile, Mike Michalson, president of New College, asked lawmakers not to push so hard on STEM that other programs get lost. If the university system overreacts, Michalson said, “we’re not really educating people, we’re just training them for that first job.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.