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Chancellor balks at in-state tuition change

TALLAHASSEE — A dispute could be brewing between top Florida higher-education officials and the federal government over an upcoming requirement for U.S. colleges and universities to offer in-state tuition rates to students from certain Pacific islands.

The tuition breaks would apply to students from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau. The small Pacific Island nations entered into what are known as “Compacts of Free Association” with the U.S. starting in the 1980s.

The tuition change was included in a federal appropriations bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 9.

The provision about in-state tuition would apply to any public colleges or universities that receive funds under a federal law that, in part, provide payments to states to assist them in making financial aid available to students. The 2024 budget law is set to go into effect on July 1.

Under the changes, U.S. colleges and universities would be required to charge tuition to students from the islands “at a rate that is not greater than the rate charged for residents of the state in which such public institution” is located.

State university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues raised the issue during a meeting of the system’s Board of Governors Wednesday, saying that he wanted to put the pending change “on the radar” for higher-education officials.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to find where the federal government has infringed upon state sovereignty in determining who qualifies and does not qualify for in-state tuition,” Rodrigues said.

Currently, a student or their parent or guardian must have “established and maintained legal residence in Florida for at least twelve months before the first day of the academic term” to qualify for in-state tuition, according to the state Department of Education.

Rodrigues said that he has “consulted with chancellors in other states” to ask if they were familiar with the changes or were aware of any similar federal requirements about in-state tuition.

“They were as surprised by it as we were, and they also said there were no examples that their folks could find,” he added.

The Florida chancellor also said he is exploring whether the state has legal standing to challenge the looming policy change.

“We are consulting with one of the top constitutional law firms in the nation to see if there is grounds for us to challenge this,” Rodrigues said.

The island nations’ populations collectively total around 200,000, which is less than the populations of 29 of Florida’s 67 counties. Micronesia’s population is 99,603, the Marshall Islands’ population is 82,011 and Palau’s population is 21,864, according to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2024.

The overall number of students identified as Pacific Islanders attending colleges and universities made up just 0.3 percent of people attending U.S. colleges and universities in the fall of 2022, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The three island nations set to get tuition breaks make up a small portion of the overall Pacific Islands.

According to the state university system’s website, Florida universities awarded 63 bachelor’s degrees to students identified as “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” in the 2022-23 school year — just a fraction of one percent of the 71,668 undergraduate degrees awarded to all students.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.