Florida Students Protest Proposed Tuition Change

Protests and petitions greet university's plan to charge flat-rate tuition.

Feb. 2, 2011— -- "With the exception of Gators football, I have not seen anything in my years at UF that has united the student body quite like block tuition," wrote Ben Meyers, University of Florida's student senate president in a guest column in The Alligator, Gainesville's independent student newspaper.

Meyers' recent opinion piece is another effort to highlight students' frustration with the new tuition proposal. Since November, UF freshman Michela Martinazzi has spent more than 30 hours preparing signs, rallying at protests and gathering signatures for a petition — all to show her opposition to UF's proposed plan to implement what she calls an "unfair" tuition policy.

"It's almost called stealing, to have to pay for something you're not getting," Martinazzi told ABCNews.com.

In response to Florida's recent education funding cutbacks, UF has had to find ways to reduce costs and save money. In 2009, UF cut more than $40 million from its budget. Block tuition would provide a "reliable, predictable funding source," said UF spokesperson Janine Sikes. In addition, block tuition would encourage students to graduate on time by taking more classes each semester, she said. That in turn would open up spots for new students.

Students have voiced a different opinion:

"I hope students here will stand against this discriminatory proposal," wrote Mitchell Norton in a letter to the editor of The Alligator.

"Why should I be required to pay for something I don't use? Is this what UF is trying to set as an example of good business?" wrote Chris Moody.

In Defense of Block Tuition

With block tuition, students have an incentive to take more classes because they pay the same tuition regardless. "We actually tell students that if they're trying to make their education as affordable as possible, then that's a good way to cut costs and get your degree," said Dan Mann, director of student financial aid at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which uses "range tuition." Students are divided into four categories depending on course load and charged one flat rate for each category.

Jake Rosner, a social policy junior at Northwestern University, in Illinois, said, "I find it nice to be able to take extra classes and have your course load vary and have that as the norm, instead of having to pay a different amount each time."

Other schools that use some variation of a block tuition system are Texas A&M University, Truman State University in Missouri, and Ohio University.

Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, Mich., had a block tuition structure up until 2007. "It enticed students to take a heavier load," said Sally DePew, director of budgetary planning and analysis. "The good part of that is it encouraged students to graduate in a timely fashion. The bad part is that it burdens students with more than they could handle academically."

UF Plan Postponed

Originally, UF planned to implement block tuition in fall 2011. But after a strong display of opposition -- including three student protests last semester -- UF's Board of Trustees decided to postpone the proposal until fall 2012 to give staff time to gather more information on concerns raised by students. UF's plan requires approval by the Florida Board of Governors, the governing body of the state's 11 public universities, before it can go into effect. The proposal is expected to come before the Board of Governors in November.

Meanwhile, the Gainesville Area Students for a Democratic Society has gathered enough signatures to get a referendum on the student government ballot this month. The group collected about 1,500 signatures in one week, exceeding the 1,000 needed.

UF senior and SDS member Diana Moreno said it's important to get the issue on the ballot to prove to school officials that most students oppose block tuition.

"That way, if they do try to impose it, it will be clear cut that they'll be going against the wishes of the students," she said.

An Added Burden?

Moreno is taking 15 credit hours this semester, although she usually takes 12. She also has an internship and a 15-hour-a-week job.

"There's not much time for a life," she said. "There's not much time for yourself. It is very difficult."

Moreno said her stressful experience this semester leads her to believe that block tuition would overburden working students who might feel that they have to take at least 15 credits to get their money's worth.

But UF engineering senior Francisco Sotomayor says he had a job, participated in organizations, and took 15 credit hours in previous semesters and did not feel overloaded. He called block tuition an opportunity to save money by taking more classes. If UF had block tuition Sotomayor said he would've had the opportunity to take extra elective classes for fun at no extra cost.

Shopping and Dropping

Although block tuition can help tackle an "increased demand with diminishing resources," as UF spokesperson Janine Sikes says, some school administrators argue it may not have that result.

At Ferris State, students were "shopping and dropping," loading up on the maximum number of classes at the beginning of the semester, but then dropping some later. "It didn't cost them anything to do that," said DePew. "But it cost us something to do that. We had to assign faculty and classrooms, and when they dropped those classes, it was wasting our resources."

DePew has found that ending block tuition benefitted her school, but she said the issue of block versus per-credit-hour tuition really depends on the type of university. She said block tuition works best at universities with students who actually complete all the additional classes they enroll in.

At U of I, Kangas compared the Urbana-Champaign campus, which uses "range tuition," and the Springfield campus, which uses per-credit-hour tuition. He said Urbana-Champaign is a traditional Big Ten campus, large, residential, with students between 18 to 22 years old. The Springfield campus, he said, is largely commuter and has a large number of older students who are taking one class at a time and have more "complicated commitments" such as families, jobs, and children. "For them," Kangas said, "the per-credit-hour method seems to work better."

Kangas said, "Both models can work. It just kind of depends on what's right for your institution."

ABCNews.com contributor Amy Rigby is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Gainesville, Fla.