Illustration by Diana Moreno.

When administrators raise tuition, students raise hell. But did Rick Scott’s war on education leave UF with no other choice?

On Sept. 16, 40 students gathered near Turlington Hall, marched to the Plaza of the Americas and hung a $35,000 price tag on “Whispering Close,” a controversial 20-foot statue of two 19th-century socialites dancing.

The demonstration, organized by Students for a Democratic Society, was inspired by the University of Florida’s recent decision to raise tuition by 15 percent — the highest increase allowed by state law — thanks to Florida’s shrinking education budget.

In the last week of April, the Florida Legislature granted university administrators permission to increase tuition by 8 percent. Shortly after, the Board of Governors approved individual requests from universities, including UF, to raise tuition by an additional 7 percent, marking this the third consecutive year that UF’s tuition increases have hit the ceiling.

At the same time, student aid is moving in the opposite direction. The Florida Bright Futures Scholarship, which serves 98 percent of undergraduates at UF, has been unable to keep up with the rising number of college applicants. This Fall, students on average received 20 percent less aid from Bright Futures than they did last year.

In Student Government elections on Sept. 27 and 28, the question, “Do you support repealing the 15 percent tuition increase at the University of Florida?” appeared on the ballot after SDS turned in more than 1,200 signatures in favor of the question, and 87 percent of students voted to repeal the increase.

Is Raising Tuition Necessary?

Janine Sikes, UF’s director of public affairs, said she empathizes with students who oppose the tuition hike, but she also said they’re looking at this situation the wrong way.

“Obviously, this is a business,” Sikes said. “But UF is a value, and they’re not recognizing that.”

She pointed out that UF students pay a relatively low fee for the quality of the education they receive. Kiplinger’s “Best Values in Public Colleges 2011” ranked UF second in the country. An equivalent review from Princeton placed UF third.

The national average for tuition at public universities is $7,600, while UF sits at $5,700. The university ranks 75 out of 594 in the nation for total tuition costs.

Additionally, UF is part of the Association of American Universities, an organization of leading research facilities, and holds one of the lowest tuition costs in the group. However, 36 percent of the 61 schools are private, placing the mean well above the national average.

“It’s impossible to get the education you expect out of flagship institutions unless we invest back into the university,” Sikes said.

UF President Bernie Machen has to balance costs to keep the school running while competing with other schools for faculty salaries and keeping programs afloat. Cuts from positions, salaries and resources have reached more than $200 million in the past four years.

Sikes said that cutting salaries can result in the loss of valuable faculty to other schools, and it doesn’t solve the problem anyway. UF’s student-to-faculty ratio is poor, she said, and overcrowding is becoming more of an issue, sometimes forcing students to sit on the floor in larger classes.

Students at least have the opportunity to take advantage of numerous scholarships and financial aid programs, Sikes added. “We, as administrators, went to school just like you guys, and I worked my way through it. And I didn’t have a Bright Futures scholarship.”

The administration is trying to improve its understanding of students’ financial needs. For the upcoming application period, each applicant will be required to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. The hope is that the FAFSA forms will give the university a clearer picture of where students fall financially.

The mean family income on record for UF students is $105,000. Sikes said she doesn’t know if new information from the FAFSA forms will inflate or deflate that number. Nor does she know if the president will continue to support a 15 percent increase each year.

If the 15 percent increases continue, Sikes expects to see more protests like the Sept. 16 rally. “We try to balance the ability for students to speak their minds and share their opinions on tough topics.” She said this rally wasn’t the first of its kind, nor will it be the last.

If students want change, they need to look farther west, she added. “They need to pay attention to what happens in Tallahassee and proposals going forward if they want their voices heard in the future.”

“Chop from the Top”

After the Sept. 16 rally, SDS organizers were promised a meeting with Machen to discuss their demands and financial solutions, none of which involve tuition hikes. But when they went to the meeting on Sept. 23, they found it had been canceled.

“They gave us the run-around,” said Chrisley Carpio, an organizer for SDS.

SDS found out they could not see Machen without a written proposal. Carpio said the demand came as a surprise.

The group does plan to write a proposal, but not to place in Machen’s hands. Instead, its members are hoping to gain support from students.

Another rally is planned for late October, and this rally will occur in conjunction with other student groups opposed to the tuition hike. Carpio expects a much larger turnout as students begin to fully understand the impact of tuition hikes on their wallets.

To alleviate UF’s financial problems, SDS wants administrators to “chop from the top.” The group believes six-figure salaries for faculty members are unnecessary and that Sikes’s claim follows a typical appeasement pattern.

“Chop from the Top” also targets the president’s mansion. Built in 1953, the mansion’s main function was to serve as the president’s home and office.

Nowadays, since Machen moved out in 2006, it stands vacant the majority of the time, punctuated by a few social events. Still, it still needs money to be maintained. Programs are being cut, supplies can not be refilled and tuition keeps increasing, but the school pays to keep a vacant mansion’s doors open.

“We don’t see them forced to make huge financial decisions, like making the sacrifices that they demand of the student body,” said Carpio. “Only students so far are carrying the burden.”

SDS also wants administrators to acknowledge that 42 percent of students hold a part-time job, something the SERU survey, UF’s method of calculating students’ income, shies away from exploring.

Tuition has undergone a 120 percent increase in the past 10 years, shown by university records. With a weak economy and state budget cuts, the university had to, and will continue to have to, find ways of generating money to keep the school running.

Still, Carpio wants the administration to find other avenues than students’ wallets. “If the administration is bragging about how UF is so affordable, let it stay that way.”

The True “Top”

Last May, Gov. Rick Scott proposed to slash Florida’s budget by $5 billion, including $3.3 billion in education cuts. That grinds down to $703 less in state funding per student than last year and pink slips for 8,700 state workers, teachers included.

The UF Board of Trustees can only work with what its given. Since Scott cut funding to education, the university had to pick up where the budget left off, and it looked to the students.

Tuition increases bring a bitterness to the student body, but the university has been left with little choice after the budget cuts made in Tallahassee. Recent protests show that students want their voices heard about tuition, but rallies against the administration may not be enough.

Scott’s influence in education runs deep with the Board of Governors, the governing body of the state university system. He appoints 14 out of the 17 members, and these members appoint trustees to govern each of Florida’s universities.

In January, multiple groups are planning to gather in Tallahassee to protest further education cuts during the Florida Governor’s Meeting. Participants are planning to come from across Florida.

Gainesville’s chapter of SDS, Florida State University Progress Coalition, Fight Back Florida and The Tuition is Too Damn High Party all plan to converge in Tallahassee shortly after the annual state legislative session begins. Anyone who is tired of these education cuts is, of course, encouraged to go to the capitol and have their voice heard.