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News Clips 12/10/2012
Professors pan idea to vary tuition based on students' majors
Source: Orlando Sentinel, 12/8/12
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By Denise-Marie Ordway
Public university professors statewide are speaking out against a set of higher-education reforms that the Florida lawmakers will consider during the next legislative session.
Many have focused their ire on the most controversial recommendation made by a task force created by Gov. Rick Scott: to start charging tuition based on majors.
To attract more students to high-demand, high-wage fields that state leaders think will help boost Florida's economy, the task force is recommending that public universities charge less for courses in those areas.
The group did not specify which fields to target. It did not suggest how much more to charge for other majors, except to say that tuition for state residents should be frozen for for targeted bachelor's degrees for the next three years. Schools eventually would be able to set differentiated tuitions for other programs.
Professors are upset over the idea of charging students more to study lower-demand fields such as art, history and philosophy, especially considering these programs generally cost less to operate than those in the so-called STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and math.
Scott and other state leaders have been pressing universities to make those STEM subjects a priority.
Faculty at the University of Florida have created an online petition to oppose the plan, which, by late last week, had collected almost 1,900 signatures.
Graduate assistants and students at UF, the state's unofficial flagship university, held a news conference to blast the recommendations, which are also being criticized by faculty at the University of Central Florida and Florida A&M University.
Professors argue the changes would sabotage small, liberal-arts programs at a time when they already have been gutted by years of state-funding cuts.
"You cannot dramatically boost physics enrollment by stealing from philosophy," Sherman Dorn, an education professor at University of South Florida, wrote on his blog. "But you can ruin a philosophy program."
The task force also recommended allowing the top research universities to start charging more for their classes than the other public universities so they can afford program enhancements. Currently, tuition at each school varies, but only slightly.
The idea of creating "preeminent" universities gained widespread support from lawmakers during the last legislative session. But Scott ultimately vetoed the proposal.
While many professors oppose all or some of the task force's recommendations, which focus on improving university accountability, funding and governance, a number of key higher-education leaders support them.
The two university officials who served on the task force — the president of the University of North Florida and a former member of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System — voted in favor of the plan. Both Frank Brogan, the university system's chancellor, and Dean Colson, chairman of the Board of Governors, generally support the plan.
Some of the proposed improvements — for example, a recommendation to track more information related to graduates' jobs and salaries — already are in the works.
It's too soon to say how many of the proposals will gain traction during the legislative session, which starts in March. Scott is still reviewing them, a spokesman said.
Last Tuesday, the task force's chairman, Dale Brill, made a presentation before the House's Higher Education & Workforce Subcommittee. While lawmakers largely kept their opinions to themselves, Brill explained how rising college costs have forced students to take on substantial loan debt.
Depending on the fields they enter, some have trouble finding work and paying off debt. "Not all degrees are created equal," said Brill, who's also president of the Florida Chamber Foundation.
The idea of charging tuition based on majors is common at colleges and universities nationwide, especially private ones, said Dan King of the American Association of University Administrators.
But King said those schools tend to charge according to the cost of each program. It would be "highly unusual," he said, to charge lower tuition to attract students to certain degrees.
Tom Auxter, president of United Faculty of Florida, said the task force's plan fails to address the real problem facing universities: A chronic and severe funding shortfall.
"When they bring up all this stuff about tuition, that's just throwing sand in our eyes," said Auxter, adding that as budgets were slashed, universities cut programs and employees and began relying more on part-time instructors.
Since 2007-08, universities have lost almost 40 percent of their state funding, according to the university system.
"It's a very serious crisis," Auxter said.