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Senate Wants ‘Block’ Tuition For Universities

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The Florida Senate will move forward next week with a proposal that would require all 12 state universities to adopt a "block" tuition policy by the fall of 2018.The move to require undergraduates to pay a flat tuition rate per semester, rather than be billed on the current credit-hour basis, could be controversial. The state has had a block-tuition option for a number of years, yet none of the universities has adopted a plan.

The problem: how to move to a block-tuition system without financially penalizing students while at the same time providing incentives for them to take enough courses per semester to graduate in four years. Additionally, university leaders, who have held the line on tuition increases in recent years, don't want to see a plan that would reduce their tuition revenues.

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who has made higher-education initiatives a top priority, said the Senate is still working on the details of its block-tuition proposal but that he believes a middle ground can be found.

The Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday will take up two bills (SB 2 and SB 4) that embody the bulk of Negron's higher-education package, including the block tuition plan. But at this point, there are no specifics on the block-tuition proposal other than the mandate that each university adopt a plan.

Negron is advocating block tuition as part of an overall effort to get more Florida undergraduates to finish their baccalaureate degrees in four years, which means taking 120 credit hours of classes, averaging 15 credit hours for the fall and spring semesters or five three credit-hour classes in each semester.

One of the Senate bills (SB 2) includes a provision that will measure the performance of the 12 state universities based on a four-year graduation rate, rather than the current six-year rate. The bill sets the goal at 50 percent.

Based on the freshmen who entered state universities in the fall of 2011, the system averages 45 percent, according to the Board of Governors, which oversees the university system. The four-year graduation rate ranges from 67 percent at the University of Florida to 13.5 percent at Florida A&M University.

In comparison, many elite public universities have much higher four-year graduation rates, including the University of Virginia at 87 percent and the University of North Carolina at 81 percent, according to Senate analysts.

Only three Florida schools exceed the recommended 50 percent goal: the University of Florida, Florida State University and New College of Florida. The University of South Florida is close at 48.5 percent. But half of the schools are at 30 percent or lower.

The measurement is not exact because some 18 percent of undergraduate degrees require more than 120 credit hours, which would result in more time.

Nonetheless, Negron and Gov. Rick Scott, who is backing a "save more, finish in four" proposal, both argue that students who linger in the universities are penalizing themselves by not moving on to careers or graduate schools.