Tuition hikes won’t cut access for students in financial need, Barron says

Eric J. Barron

Florida State University President Eric J. Barron has guaranteed free tuition and fees to students with federal Pell Grants. Following is his announcement of this guarantee.

When it comes to higher education, there are two major issues in the news: first, the rising cost of education, with the need to keep tuition and fees under control, and second, the view that higher tuition will make college less accessible to our students.

Here is the bottom line for both of these issues: Florida State University’s doors are wide open for Florida’s top students, regardless of financial need. In fact, you are about to hear me make a guarantee that Florida State University will ensure that every need-based student who receives a Pell Grant has their full tuition and fees paid for, without loans.

We know this because we recently asked a key question, “Has the cost of tuition and fees at Florida State caused hardship and limited access to Florida’s students”?

The answer in one word: No. Not even close.

After discussion at our last Board of Trustees meeting prompted by Board of Governors’ deliberations, we examined the financial records of all of our 27,000-plus in-state undergraduates last fall and spring to determine how much they actually paid out-of-pocket for their tuition and fees. This is an important distinction — not our published tuition and fee rates, but what students actually pay.

What we found is pretty astonishing.

Let me divide it into two pieces: First, let’s look at the entire in-state population (Chart1 — PDF download 156 KB).

Here are the facts. Instead of owing the university for tuition and fees, nearly 40 percent of our undergraduate students get refunds from the university to pay for other expenses, and this does not include pre-paid or loans.

It is true that about 60 percent of our in-state undergraduates owe something in tuition and fees. But, for about half of the students who pay, the total is less than $750 per year, an amount affordable for most students. For context, I want you to know that I paid $600 in tuition alone in 1969.

Our examination found that 10,400 students were refunded $41.9 million after paying their tuition and fees, through a combination of Bright Futures, Pell Grants and other scholarships.

So, this is a great success story for the State of Florida and Florida State University. Even as tuition and fees have increased, the impact has been cushioned by Bright Futures (~$53 million); federally funded Pell Grants (~$29 million) and University and private scholarships (~ $33 million). That’s a total of about $115 million before factoring in loans and prepaid tuition. Less than 10 percent of the over 27,000 undergraduate students at Florida State University pay anything close to the $4,566 published amount for tuition and fees.

For the vast majority of our students, available financial aid pays the lion’s share of their tuition and fees.

What we hear is that 15 percent increases in tuition are large, even though our tuition and fees are at the bottom compared to other states. 15 percent just sounds large. But the fact is that 15 percent is very small, because we hand out $115 million before even considering prepaid tuition. The tuition increases have had very little effect on the pocketbooks of students or their parents at Florida State University.

Now, let me call attention to the second part of this story. So many people look at this problem through the lens of students who are need based — and this is critical — will the tuition increases keep the financially disadvantaged student from college?

But the story becomes even more astonishing when we reviewed the situation of our students who have the greatest financial need — those who qualified for federal Pell Grants (Chart2 — PDF download 158 KB).

For students receiving Pell Grants, the students with the most financial need, over 92 percent don’t pay anything out-of-pocket for tuition and fees — and they get refunds from the university.

It’s important to note that as tuition increases, need-based scholarships increase. By law, 30 percent of all differential tuition payments are designated for need-based scholarships.

This has special implications for our Pell Grant students. Last year about 6000 students received Pell Grants. Nearly 62 percent of these students also received Bright Futures funding. Of the 6000 students, over 92 percent didn’t have to pay any money out-of-pocket for tuition and fees. Instead, they received refunds from the university.

Of the 6000 students receiving Pell Grants, only 547 actually paid out-of-pocket tuition and fees. Those payments totaled $665,000, an average of about $100 dollars a month for each.

Assuming we are permitted to raise tuition the full amount allowed, including differential tuition — Florida State University will more than erase the need for any Pell Grant student to pay any tuition or fees.

As a result, FSU can now guarantee that no Pell Grant recipient, who has gone through the university’s financial process in a timely fashion, will owe a single penny, out-of-pocket, in tuition and fees to the university.

I know that is a strong guarantee, but it is just a statement of the facts — the doors to this university are wide open to Florida’s high-quality students. Financial assistance has done its job.

It is time to stop listening to the national news on the cost of higher education and think it applies to Florida State University. It is time to compliment our legislature on what they have done with Bright Futures and on their efforts to promote financial assistance to make our universities accessible. And, it is time to realize that tuition increases at Florida State aren’t impacting accessibility or burdening our families; they are all that we have to maintain our quality and keep our bright students in Florida in the face of State budget cuts.