WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Last December, about 40 homeless people who were living at The Lord's Place were taking classes at Palm Beach State College. This year, there are eight.
Although there are several reasons for the drop, a major factor is the college's decision to reject applications for free tuition from people who live in the nonprofit's free or heavily subsidized apartments, said Diana Stanley, executive director of the agency, which serves the homeless.
''People are getting caught up in the definition of homelessness," she said.
The 250 people who are living in the apartments in West Palm Beach and Boynton Beach are homeless, she said. However, because they have roofs over their heads, college officials say they aren't eligible for free tuition despite a state law that allows the homeless to attend state colleges and universities at no cost.
This month, a Lake Worth group that provides apartments to the homeless sued the college, claiming it is violating the law. The Palm Beach Recovery Coalition filed suit after PBSC said five homeless men who live in its apartment don't qualify for free tuition.
John Holdnak, vice chancellor for financial policy for the Florida Department of Education's division of colleges, said the group's beef isn't with the college -- it's with the law.
There's no doubt, he said, that interest in the program has grown dramatically in recent years. Three years ago, offering free tuition to the homeless cost the state roughly $300,000. Last year, it cost more than $1 million.
However, he said, the amount pales in comparison with the cost of providing free tuition to other groups that are eligible under the same law. Allowing students to dual-enroll in state colleges while they are still in high school costs roughly $50 million annually, he said.
''It's a fairly small program," he said of the homeless tuition exemption.
On the university level, it's nearly non-existent. According to the Florida Board of Governors, during the 2009-10 fiscal year, the state's university system waived fees for three homeless people at a cost of $5,787. All were for classes at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
The difference is that people still have to qualify to attend state universities. State colleges, formerly known as community colleges, have to accept all applicants.
And the program is getting increasingly costly, PBSC officials said. Last year, providing free tuition to 186 homeless people cost the college $371,443, more than a third of the amount incurred at all of the state's other colleges combined. The burgeoning expense spurred PBSC to crack down on the program, said attorney Grant Skolnick, who is representing the five homeless men in the lawsuit.
Holdnak said it's not about money. "It's the legal definition that the college has to follow," he said.
Under the law, free college or university tuition is available to "a student who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence or whose primary nighttime residence is a public or private shelter."
If the legislature had ended the definition there, clients of The Lord's Place and the Palm Beach Recovery Coalition would be eligible for free tuition, he said. However, the law goes on to say that the shelter has to be "designed to provide temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized."
With that clause in place, it means that free tuition is available to people who live on the streets or those who are in government-sanctioned halfway houses, such as those that serve as the final stop for people before they leave prison. Those who believe the law should be broader should take it up with the legislature, Holdnak said.
Stanley said she plans to take another look at the law. If wording is the problem, she said it is likely she will speak to local state lawmakers about tweaking the definition.
In the meantime, she said, her caseworkers say PBSC officials have tried to find ways to let homeless people take classes. They helped one client get a Pell grant to continue her studies.
Grace Truman, a college spokeswoman, said such assistance is offered to all students who can't afford tuition.
Stanley said The Lord's Place also is looking at other ways to help clients improve their job skills.
Already, it offers classes to help people land jobs in retail, culinary, property management, clerical and counseling fields.
''Of course, it's discouraging," she said of the college's policy. "A lot of our guys were going there. A lot of our moms were going there.
''But we like to have a menu. PBSC used to be the largest item on the menu. Now it's just one of the items on the menu," she said.