Florida university presidents said they are ready to deal with a developing legislative mandate to have block tuition on their campuses by the fall of 2018, but warned the new system won’t come without challenges.
In interviews at the Florida Board of Governors meeting this week, a half-dozen of the university leaders expressed reservations about the cost, the impact on part-time students, and the unique characteristics of their schools as they switch from charging students on a per-credit-hour basis for classes to charging a flat, per-semester fee.
The basic idea behind block tuition is to provide a financial incentive for students to take more classes and earn undergraduate degrees in four years. For instance, they could pay a flat fee representing 12 credit hours but take 15 or more credit hours in classes each semester, more quickly reaching the 120 credit hours needed for most baccalaureate degrees.
Tying to apply the block-tuition system it to a 12-university system with more than 400,000 students involves many nuances and complications, the university presidents said.
“I support block tuition as long as it doesn’t hurt part-time students and as long as it doesn’t hurt working students,” said Mark Rosenberg, president of Florida International University.
FIU — with 55,000 students, the second-largest school in the system — classifies 41 percent of its student body as part-time. And Rosenberg estimated 85 percent of his students are working part-time or full-time.
He said those students may not be able to take advantage of a block tuition plan, which would drive down costs for students who load up on credit hours.
“In essence, they will not be able to benefit from the block tuition because they have to work,” Rosenberg said.
And, like the other presidents, Rosenberg is worried about the financial consequences of a tuition plan that allows students to take more classes than they pay for.
An analysis of a plan where students paid a flat fee representing 12 credit hours per semester but enrolled in 15 or more credit hours would represent a $40 million cost for Florida State University. It would mean the loss of $20 million in tuition and fees and result in a $20 million cost to expand classes and add faculty to accommodate the heavier student class loads.
“The issue is how much more will it cost in terms of the additional overhead we will have to take on? We will definitely have to schedule a lot more classes,” Rosenberg said. “Overall, I like the idea. But let us try to fit what works for our demographic. One size will not fit all.”
Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who is the leading advocate for the Senate higher-education initiative (SB 2), said each school can develop its own block tuition plan and thus far he is “very encouraged” by the reports he is hearing.
“Different approaches are percolating through the process and so by the time it gets back to the Legislature (next year) we’ll have a good plan,” Negron said. “And ultimately, the plan could look different at the different universities.”
Larry Robinson, interim president of Florida A&M University, said there are benefits to a block tuition plan, but warned that it could hurt overly ambitious students.
“You don’t want to encourage students who might otherwise take a reasonable number of hours where they can succeed to bite off a little more than they can chew,” he said.
Rather than reaping financial benefits, students who struggle with a class overload could end up being penalized by having to repeat classes or pay extra charges by ending up with “excess hours,” Robinson said.
“Those are some of things you have to safeguard against,” Robinson said.
John Hitt, president of the University of Central Florida — the system’s largest school, with 64,000 students — also struck a note of caution on issues such as part-time students and the financial impact caused by a loss of tuition.
“I don’t think block tuition has historically benefited urban universities particularly well, but I’m confident whatever the Legislature adopts, we’ll make it work,” he said.
Hitt also said if the block tuition plan dramatically increases the number of students seeking additional classes, it could stretch the classroom space on his campus.
“You don’t have that much empty space. We would have some capacity problems,” Hitt said.
New College of Florida is the one state university that essentially has already adopted a block-tuition plan.
Donal O’Shea, president of New College, said all of the 860 students on the Sarasota campus are full-time students and are charged for 16 credit hours per semester, with many taking heavier class loads.
He said he expects a smooth adjustment to the block tuition mandate if the New College plan can conform to a provision in the House’s higher-education bill (HB 3) that would prohibit schools from charging students for more than 15 credit hours a semester.
Randy Avent, president of Florida Polytechnic University who previously served as a vice chancellor for research at North Carolina State University, said he is very familiar with block tuition plans, but is waiting to see more details on the Florida proposals.
“I came from a state that had block tuition,” Avent said. “The devil is in the details.”