Low taxes are something we are proud of in Florida. With no state income tax and a low business tax, we have been able to attract businesses from high-tax states and add more than 330,000 new private-sector jobs over the last two years. Yet, even with all of our work to cut taxes and reduce regulatory burdens on job creators, there have been consistent cries to raise taxes on Florida families in the form of increased college tuition.
There is no doubt that a higher-education diploma can unlock the door to opportunity for families in our state. A great education leads to great jobs. We have passionately fought against attempts to raise the cost of university and college tuition in Florida because increasing the price of tuition decreases the number of families who can afford to provide this critical experience for their children.
After fighting off tuition-increase attempts last year, I recently line-item vetoed a 3 percent tuition increase submitted by the legislature in our 2013—14 state budget. The argument for their tuition increase goes something like this: Florida tuition is lower than tuition in other states, so it should be higher; and, without more money, our universities cannot provide better services.
First, let’s look at the cost of tuition in Florida. We should be proud that Florida is ranked 40th in the country for the tuition costs of its public four-year institutions, as reported by the College Board, just as we are proud to have no state income tax. But, let’s put this ranking in context. The recent history of tuition in Florida has been one of constant increases. The average cost of tuition and fees at our state university system has risen more than 125 percent over the past ten years. This means that a student who entered a state university in 2009–10 has seen tuition and fees increase by 40 percent from his freshman year to the current year (going from $140.13 per credit hour in 2009–10 to $195.33 per credit hour this year). What other industry has managed to stay in business while raising its prices by 125 percent, even during a national recession?
At this rate, it is almost impossible for a family to save and plan for college. It is no wonder so many graduates today are leaving school with massive student-loan debt that limits their future opportunities.
The rising cost of tuition is also becoming a financial strain on families planning for their child’s future college education through Florida’s Prepaid College Plan Program. Because this program is linked to the rising cost of tuition, the program’s cost for a newborn has climbed more than 350 percent in the last six years. That means a family purchasing the prepaid four-year university plan this year will pay almost $54,000 — an increase of approximately $42,000 in nine years. Under current projections, the same plan would exceed $140,000 in 2030. If we don’t hold the line on tuition now, we are pricing many families out of the opportunity to achieve their dreams.
Second, the argument that schools need to charge families more in tuition to improve the quality of their services ignores the high rankings our university system has achieved. For example, the State University System of Florida continues to be ranked in the top ten nationally for six-year graduation rates (66 percent). The system is a national leader in online education and has increased degree production in science, technology, engineering, and math during the past four years by almost 30 percent. The bottom line: Florida has proven that a high-quality university experience can be offered at a low cost. This shouldn’t surprise us. We are the same state that offers quality services at a low cost to businesses that locate, grow, and create jobs here. We should be able to do the same in our higher-education system.
While many political leaders have been quick to join us in fighting tax and fee increases on almost any other front, our fight to hold the line on tuition has proven less popular. But we owe it to the families in our state who are paying tuition today and those planning to pay tuition for the next generation of Floridians to be direct: Raising tuition is a tax increase. And, unfortunately, it is a tax increase that directly affects whether Floridians can achieve the American dream of earning a higher-education diploma.
The easy answer in government will always be to spend more money. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right answer. In business, it is the company that can provide the highest-quality service at the lowest cost that succeeds. That is what we want for our higher-education system in Florida. The opportunities and dreams of future graduates are at stake, and we owe it to them to continue our fight against the tax increase of rising tuition.
— Rick Scott is the governor of Florida.