ORLANDO, Fla. — Gov. Rick Scott says he wants Florida universities to be the nation's best in preparing graduates to get jobs in fields that are hiring, but he isn't backing down on his demand that they find a way to fund their programs without raising tuition.
"Unfortunately there's a day of reckoning and at some point we can't afford it," Scott said Tuesday at a luncheon for the state's Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's 12 public universities. "If we don't' have a great university system we're not going to be able to grow jobs."
Scott's remarks came on the opening day of the board's three-day business meeting on the campus of the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
The governor has been at odds in recent months with state university officials and faculty on issues ranging from tuition to course offerings.
The tuition issue has been particularly divisive after Scott signed a bill into law that cuts the universities' funding by $300 million.
Scott adamantly opposes tuition hikes and vetoed a bill that would have let both the University of Florida and Florida State exceed the current 15 percent annual legal limit. The board is set to vote Thursday on tuition rates.
"We're not in a system where we can afford a bunch of 'nice to haves,'" Scott said.
UF softened its stance in recent weeks and is now asking the board for a 9 percent increase, but most of the other 11 schools want a full 15 percent next year.
They include UCF president John Hitt, whose school stands to lose $52.6 million. That cut is behind only FSU, which would be out more than $65 million.
Hitt said Tuesday that UCF would generate $20 million if the 15 percent tuition increase is approved. But he said that still would leave a significant deficit "that we can spend on teaching and research and service."
"I have no idea what the board is going to do," Hitt told The Associated Press. "I hope they'll approve our 15 percent because we need it."
Hitt's comments echoed State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan who said recently that cuts in state support dramatically exceed what the schools are able to make up financially, even if they raise tuition by the maximum 15 percent allowed by law. Overall, the state's public universities would raise roughly $100 million if all boosted their tuition by the 15 percent maximum.
Brogan also has noted that Florida's existing 11 public universities are growing at a rate of 2 percent to 3 percent annually.
Scott acknowledged Tuesday that "it's hard to make tough choices and be accountable." He said he wants Florida's schools to be No. 1 in affordability; getting students ready for jobs in fields that are hiring; and graduating students with science, engineering and math degrees.
"I believe it's our obligation to let students know where the jobs will be," Scott said.
Asked if it was hypocritical to sign off on the budget cuts, but also ask for that kind of output from universities, Scott said that's not an issue because schools could absorb the cuts through their budget reserves, which was what he said the Legislature actually cut.
"Those reserves are more than what they were expected to have," he said. "I'm focused on families of our state. The families of our state are struggling. Even though unemployment has come down, families are having a harder time paying for universities and incurring a lot of debt. We've got to keep the cost of living as low as possible."
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower .
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