Over the weekend, Governor Rick Scott signed new legislation into law that stands to save veterans, undocumented immigrant students and purchasers of the Florida Prepaid College Plan thousands of dollars a year. In addition, a new cap on the tuition differential, a per-credit hour surcharge set individually by each Florida public university and college, will freeze tuition at most of the state’s four-year higher ed institutions for this upcoming academic year. Here’s an overview of what changes took place this legislative session:
Through the passage of House Bill 851, Florida joins at least 17 others states offering in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students. To qualify for in-state tuition, undocumented students must either currently be enrolled in college or have applied to a postsecondary institution within two years of their high school graduation date. Additionally, the bill restricts qualified students to those who attended a Florida high school for at least three years. According to an internal Senate analysis, the change will benefit around 1,300 Florida students annually. Out-of-state tuition rates at Florida colleges and universities are up to four times as high as in-state rates. Various groups of Florida lawmakers have been attempting to pass a similar bill since 2003.
Under House Bill 7015, honorably discharged veterans from anywhere in the country will qualify for in-state tuition if they enroll at a Florida public college or university. For many years, the state has also granted complete tuition waivers at state universities and colleges to combat veterans who have received the Purple Heart or other similar medal designations. Under a lesser known part of House Bill 851, that waiver now expands to include tuition at career centers operated by school districts and charter technical career centers.
Beginning in 2007, Florida public universities were allowed to raise tuition annually by up to 15 percent through an add-on surcharge placed on a student’s credit hours called a “tuition differential.” The added revenue has been spent on campus improvements to undergraduate education, including hiring academic advisors, enhancing academic support and reducing student-to-faculty ratios. Thirty-percent of the tuition differential is required to be spend on helping students pay for college, in 2012-13 43,479 state university students received $70.9 million in need-based aid. The new legislation doesn’t eliminate the tuition differential, which ranges from $35-52 per credit hour, it simply limits the universities that can approve an increase and caps the annual increase to 6%, which was previously 15%. Universities that can increase their tuition differential must meet the state’s “preeminent” distinction, which currently only relates to the University of Florida and Florida State University.
Nearly 350,000 students have attended higher education through the Florida Prepaid College Plan, which allowed their families to lock in future college costs for their young children at today’s prices. The plans had grown expensive for many, however, due to widespread increases in tuition throughout the state. Now that tuition increases have been capped, the plan charges have been adjusted, and the drops in pre-paid tuition rates have been dramatic. For instance, parents of a newborn could expect to have paid $54,000, or $350 a month for 18 years, for a four-year prepaid education contract. Under the new tuition caps, that cost has dropped to $35,000, or $250 a month. According to the Florida Prepaid College Board, as many as 40,000 Florida families who have purchased plans already may see payment reductions or refunds totaling $50 million.
During the 2013 legislative session, Governor Rick Scott kept his promise to veto any proposals that included tuition increases for Florida colleges and universities. As a result, tuition rose at the smallest pace it has in nearly 20 years for many Florida students. Tuition would have stayed exactly the same had it not been for a provision in the law that links tuition increases to the inflation rate, which last year was 1.7%. This year, the bump will cease to exist as a new law eliminates the automatic annual rate of inflation increases to tuition for all public postsecondary institutions. Based on the current inflation rate, the change will save state university students between $45-50 this fall.