A new Demos report says Florida’s cuts to higher education are hurting the state’s middle class. (Photo by Lindsey Allen.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Demos, a progressive public policy think tank, released a study that says the state’s continued cuts to higher education have shifted high costs to middle-class students and families that have for years been weathering a tough economy. According to the report, the state’s higher education system experienced a 22 percent decrease in state funding between 2007 and 2012.

Last year, the Florida Legislature cut $259 million from higher education out its $70 billion budget. This allowed for a 15 percent increase in tuition at universities and a 5 percent increase at state colleges. According to Demos, the impact of all that is already being felt.

The cost of this inevitable rise in tuition will not just be borne by students and their families, but by the state itself. Rising tuitions put Florida at risk of a shortage of college graduates necessary to fill the state’s jobs of the future. According to projections, 59 percent of all jobs in Florida will require postsecondary education by 2018, but only 43 percent of Floridians are projected to hold a college degree by 2025, leaving the state with a significant “skills gap.” Cutting funding for higher education not only compromises future prospects for Florida’s youth, but threatens the state’s overall economic growth and competitiveness as well.

These decreases have also saddled struggling families with crippling costs. Demos reports that as a result of the state’s cuts, many of the costs for higher education have just shifted to other people and entities:

  • Since 1990-1991, average tuition at four-year institutions in Florida rose by 55 percent. This increase is lower than the national average, which increased 113 percent over the same period.
  • However, average tuition at two-year institutions has risen 94 percent, which is greater than the national average increase of 71 percent.
  • Tuition, fees, room and board at public, four-year institutions in Florida amounted to 26 percent of median household income in 2010, a 37 percent increase from 1990-1991, when it amounted to 19 percent of median family income.
  • Tuition and fees at Florida’s community colleges amounted to 5.6 percent of median household income in 2010, an 89 percent increase from 1990-1991, when it amounted to 3 percent of median household income. The cost of tuition, fees, room and board at Florida’s community colleges reached 20 percent of Florida’s median household income in 2010.
  • Almost half (45 percent) of 2010 college graduates from public four-year colleges in Florida had student debt averaging $19,111, which is 12 percent lower than the national average ($21,740). In 2000, a slightly larger percentage of graduates (52 percent) of public fouryear Florida colleges and universities carried student debt but of a lesser amount ($15,163).
  • The rising costs of higher education in the state have been partially offset by the considerable increase in grant-based financial aid provided by the state, which has grown by almost 420 percent over the past two decades, from just $113 million in 1990-1991 to $583 million today. In relative terms, this increase represented an increase in financial aid from $373 per full-time equivalent student in 1990-91 to $979 per FTE for the 2009-10 academic year.
  • A rising portion of this grant aid, however, has been directed away from students with the greatest financial need. In 1990-1991, $45.3 million, or 40 percent of Florida’s grant support for students was need-based. In 2009-10, need-based grant aid totaled $149 million but fell as a share of total grant support for students to 25 percent. The state awarded $435 million in merit-based grants in 2009-10.

The study also notes that this shift is happening as the population of people entering college is diversifying — and growing. Right now, about two-thirds of young Floridians will seek higher education. More minorities are looking to enter college, but have less means than their white counterparts to pay for the rising costs. According to Demos, half of Florida’s white young adults were raised in households with incomes below $63,000 in 2010, while Florida’s minority youth came from households with substantially lower incomes: below $40,000 for African-Americans and below $50,000 for young Latinos.

According to researchers, even though young Floridians are “doing their part to prepare for the 21st century economy,” state lawmakers and officials “are failing to meet students half way.”