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Stimulus Money Helps Soften University Budget Cuts

In the months leading up to the 2009 legislative session, the word on the street for higher education was to look out for massive cuts.

It wasn't a big secret that the state's general revenue pot had taken a massive hit and university officials from Tallahassee to Miami started developing contingency plans that involved hundreds of layoffs, furloughs and program closures. The university presidents said it could be like “Armageddon” for the state university system.

Community colleges, likewise, feared the worst and wondered if they could remain open-door institutions.

But when lawmakers heard federal stimulus money was coming Florida's way, there was a change in the wind. Higher education advocates, from the university presidents to the Chamber of Commerce, began heavily lobbying lawmakers to use the money to protect the universities, tying higher education success to the economy.

And the colleges and universities were largely spared, with the $66.5 billion budget to be voted on Friday actually boosting money for state universities and community colleges.

“The budget included no reduction for priority programs,” Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, said Thursday, in explaining the roughly $3.4 billion university budget on the House floor.

The state university system wound up with a $3.4 billion budget, up from $3.18 billion this past year. Community colleges also saw a small increase overall, up to $1.72 billion from 1.67 billion.

Lawmakers said they hoped the money would be enough to run major, modern universities and a world class community college system.

“I've been here 24 years, it's the worst budget for higher education I've ever seen,” Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, told reporters. But it’s better than it could have been.

Still, higher education officials acknowledged that the state will need to find a source of money to replace the stimulus dollars that have propped up the coming year's budget. Lawmakers said they had to rely on the money if they wanted to avoid massive cuts. College and university leaders say for now, they'll take what they can get.

“Overall, it was a successful trip to Tallahassee for everybody,” University of North Florida President John Delaney told the Board of Governors on the board's conference call this week.

Michael Brawer, executive director of the Florida Association of Community Colleges, said considering the college system's initial fear of a 20 percent cut, they are “pleased” with the outcome, even though it does rely on nonrecurring dollars. Community college presidents warned state officials that students could get turned away from the schools if funding was cut.

Enrollment has jumped substantially the past few semesters, and the Department of Education has estimated that 70,000 new students will enroll this fall.

Budget cuts from the previous year already had the colleges running lean, relying on adjunct professors instead of full time ones, putting off technology updates, and enacting hiring freezes. But the ultimate 2009-2010 budget deal should stave off any more massive cuts that community colleges initially contemplated, Brawer said.

“I don't think at this point, anybody is going to have to trim more than they had to trim this year,” Brawer said.

Although state workers earning more than $45,000 a year will be forced to absorb a 2 percent pay cut next year, university employees were made exempt from that cut.

TUITION

In November, Gov. Charlie Crist unveiled a proposal that would allow individual universities to increase tuition past the mandated legislative increase up to 15 percent per year until Florida's university tuition reached the national average.

The university system began a full scale push for the legislation, heavily lobbying lawmakers for the change, which would likely only have about a 1 percent impact on the university in the first year, but could bring in up to $208 million for the 2012 fiscal year. The bill passed both chambers and is on its way to the governor's desk.

“That's a sea change for Florida,” Delaney said.

Community colleges are not subject to the differential tuition measure. But, they will enact an 8 percent increase under the state's proposed 2009-2010 budget. Brawer said the colleges asked for the tuition increase, even though they weren't happy about it.

“We were not real happy about asking for it but again when you're taking a big hit , you've got to offset your losses somewhere,” Brawer said.

Brawer said that they felt comfortable asking for the increase because a number of community college students are recipients of federal Pell Grants, which are set to increase in the coming year.

BRIGHT FUTURES

The beginning of the end may be near for the popular Bright Futures Scholarship program that gives partial or full tuition to the state's highest achieving students.

Since the 1997 inception of the scholarship program that pays full or partial tuition and fees for Florida's highest achieving students, the program has ballooned from $75 million for the first year to $435 million in 2008-2009. More and more students became eligible for the awards, putting a strain on the state to provide additional dollars for the program.

For a full Bright Futures award, a student must earn a 3.5 grade point average and a 1270 SAT score. For a partial award, students must earn a 3.0 grade point average and a 970 SAT score.At the University of Florida, 95 percent of the in-state freshmen class and 73 percent of in-state students overall are on Bright Futures scholarships.

Early on in session, lawmakers began talking of tweaking the program and they ultimately decided that the scholarships cannot cover the cost of classes that were dropped after a university's add/drop period, when students can drop a class without penalty.

But as budget negotiations entered the final stages, it became clear that the scholarships wouldn't be able to even cover the 8 percent base tuition increase, let alone the 15 percent. The state will allocate $418.9 million to the program, effectively capping the scholarship. Individual students will receive about the same amount that they received last year.

"I think it's going to be a shock to Floridians at the end of the day when what they thought was a scholarship is nowhere in the vicinity," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami, as the House and Senate conference committee attempted to work out budget differences last week.

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