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Florida Gov. Rick Scott is putting the state's universities on notice: He wants to keep tuition rates down and he plans to tie their money to how well they do on helping students get a job.
Scott made that point clear during an hour-long session Wednesday with the panel that oversees the state's 12 public universities. He called tuition a "tax" and noted that a majority of Floridians earn less than $50,000 a year.
"I'm concerned about tuition, I think it's a positive that our tuition is lower than in other states," Scott said. "I want to make sure we continue to have a state where we have lower taxes and a lower cost of living."
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Florida's tuition and fees averages $6,140 a year for undergraduate residents, which is below the national average.
In recent years universities, which have endured several years of budget cuts, have used tuition hikes to make up the difference. State lawmakers this past year cut funding by $300 million. University presidents who gathered at the Florida Board of Governors meeting bemoaned the cuts, saying it was hurting their efforts to repair labs or keep professors from leaving the state.
The governor doesn't have complete say over how much universities charge. This past year state legislators structured the state budget in such a way that universities were able to raise tuition without Scott being able to use his veto pen to block it.
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But those tuition hikes were ultimately approved by the Board of Governors. And Scott will soon have a chance to remake that board since in January he will get six appointments to the 17-member panel.
Some members of the board echoed Scott and said they want to keep tuition low.
"I don't know why we're not proud that we make education affordable," said Norman Tripp, a board member and well-known South Florida attorney.
But board member Ava Parker questioned how the university system was supposed to reconcile Scott's viewpoint with state lawmakers who have been going along with tuition hikes. She said it appeared that legislators have embraced a "philosophical shift" to have families pay more.
"You can help me with the Legislature," Scott replied to her.
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During his remarks, Scott also said he also remains opposed to market tuition, where certain types of majors would cost students more depending on demand. That idea has been suggested as one way to help schools cope with budget cuts.
Scott also remains opposed to letting top universities such as Florida State University and the University of Florida charge more. He vetoed a bill allowing the two schools to charge higher tuition.
The governor also plans to tie university performance to funding when he rolls out his 2013 budget recommendations early next year. Scott said one of the performance criteria should include whether or not a graduate gets a job and how much they are getting paid.
The Board of Governors is already asking state legislators to tie $118 million to certain goals, including how well schools graduate and retain students.
Scott's visit to the board came the same week that a task force he appointed recommended that universities charge different tuition rates according to the type of degree a student is seeking. The task force recommended that tuition rates in those fields should remain frozen until the state's economy improves and unemployment drops below 7 percent to encourage students to enroll in programs that lead to high-wage, high-skill and high-demand jobs.