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Editorial: Florida Universities talk Ivy

(Illustration by Grecia Valenzuela)

It is safer to have the whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance.

–Thomas Jefferson

If you thought a 15 percent tuition differential increase was tough to stomach, just be glad you aren’t a Gator or a ‘Nole.

If Gov. Rick Scott approves a bill passed by the Florida legislature last month allowing certain research universities to raise tuition and fees to the market rate, incoming freshmen to the University of Florida and Florida State University will pay more than the rest of the state.

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HB 7129, or the State Universities of Academic and Research Excellence and National Preeminence Act, authorizes state research universities to raise their tuition more than the previous maximum of 15 percent if they meet specified criteria, like high research expenditures, good retention and graduation rates and a high ranking in nationally recognized university rankings. (See the full list of criteria at http://1.usa.gov/HmrOSR)

This bill, while it doesn’t affect UNF directly since research isn’t as high a priority here as other universities, further highlights the state’s stance on higher education: STEM degrees are important, and you should get one, but we’re not going to help you pay for it any more than we can help it.

Over and over again, you have heard state representatives stress the importance of STEM degrees. As they should. No one will argue that these degrees are vital to keeping the state – and the country – at the forefront of progress.

But after receiving particularly deep cuts this year, UF – $36.5 million cut for 2012-13 – and FSU – just under $66 million cut – saw that they would have to find extra revenue somewhere to keep from jeopardizing their “public ivy” reputation.

While it is nice to have an ivy league reputation, the first part of the designation is the most important and seems to have been forgotten: public. We are talking about public institutions of higher learning, paid for in part by the public for the betterment of society.

Year after year, the state of Florida, along with several other states, slowly changes its focus from the word “public” to the word “ivy.” State funding continues to decrease, and more of that financial responsibility is shifted to the students of each university.

That does two things.

First, it tells students that the taxpayers are less willing to invest in higher education and that those directly impacted by the university system – students – should bear more of that responsibility.

A line that is often used in tuition discussions is that students should view their education as an investment, that despite the canyons of debt they will have to navigate out of after graduation, students should realize that in the long run it will pay off.

But this is a line that was originally used to encourage the public to pay for education. Higher education is an investment by the community, state and nation, an investment the founding fathers said would elevate the level of society by educating it.

“On the diffusion of education among the people rest the preservation and perpetuation of our free institutions,” said founding father Daniel Webster.

Second, it makes higher education harder to attain. The more the individual students are asked to pay, the less likely they will be to choose to attend college at all. Unless you come from a wealthy family, or you manage to land a significant scholarship, you will likely end your collegiate career in the red. And the job prospects for college graduates are increasingly tentative as of late.

It’s difficult to convince someone to spend four or more years slaving away at a degree, most likely working along the way to pay for rent and dinner, when they will come out the other side owing the government thousands of dollars.

Only 36 percent of working-age adults in Florida hold at least a two year degree as of 2010, putting us 31st nationally in college attainment, according to a study from the Lumina Foundation.

Financial stability plays a huge role for the 64 percent that chose not to attend a college or university. Yet we continue to transfer more and more of the financial burden to students, making the ol’ college try an unrealistic effort for the majority of the state.

Yes, it can’t be ignored that in tough financial times such as these, sacrifices must be made. But maybe the state of Florida, collectively, should come to an agreement that higher education for all is important enough to pay for.

Maybe the fact that our best universities can’t afford to maintain their current high quality should be a sign that we need to pay a little more for our state’s education, rather than raise tuition to unrealistic levels.

A society is only as good as its least educated, and as we make it harder for the least educated to get the best education, our society as a whole will certainly suffer.

Luckily, UNF, behind President John Delaney, has emphasized the importance and its role as a quality, affordable – despite our own share of tuition raises – undergraduate university. Hopefully, it will remain that way, and all the folks that the state won’t let anywhere near precious UF and FSU can be welcomed at UNF with open arms.

Send letters to the editor to [email protected].

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