TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday that he's ready to put the brakes on tuition hikes for college and university students across Florida.
"I don't believe in tuition hikes," Scott said.
Last week, 300 Florida university students rallied at the Capitol to oppose what looks like another push by the Legislature to approve a tuition increase. Tuition at five Florida universities has climbed 60 percent over the past four years, while students at the other six public universities, including Florida Atlantic University, have weathered a 45 percent boost in that time.
"We have to do what the private sector has done, what every family has done," Scott said. "We have to tighten our belts to see how we can save money. That's the first thing I want to focus on: How do we reduce our costs, rather than how do we raise tuition."
The presidents of the University of Florida and Florida State University earlier this month urged a House committee to give schools authority to begin charging higher tuition for science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs which fuel the STEM degrees Scott says are the path to finding jobs in an evolving economy.
The House budget committee Wednesday is set to approve another potential 15 percent boost in university tuition as part of its $69 billion state spending plan. College tuition would climb 8 percent, under the plan.
But even with Scott standing in the way of tuition hikes, state law allows individual universities to seek approval from the State University System's Board of Governors for a higher rate.
Although a tug-of-war between the governor and the board, a majority of which he appoints, would seem unlikely, university leaders have defended the tuition increases as needed.
Florida's $5,531 average annual tuition has been climbing even as state support for universities has dropped 24 percent since 2008, shifting more school costs onto students and their families. The state's tuition is the 45th lowest rate in the country.
"Allowing tuition increases helps keep Florida competitive nationally," said House budget chair Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring.
But while universities have been cutting programs to reduce costs, Scott thinks more reductions can be made at the administrative level.
Six-figure salaries paid to high-level administrators have endured Florida's prolonged economic slump. Over the past year, they've become a rallying point at campus protests.
Scott last fall posted 52,000 university employees' salaries on the governor's home page, as he began what he called a "conversation starter" about the role of higher education in Florida.
More than 2,600 employees across Florida universities earn more than the governor's designated $130,273 salary. But Scott's personal wealth -- which tops $100 million, according to net worth filings -- has inspired him to accept only a penny as his yearly pay.
A Palm Beach Post review of salary records found most lobbyists for the schools earn six-figure salaries, with many earning about $200,000 a year.
UF's president, Bernie Machen, and FSU president, Eric Barron, each earned more than $400,000 last year, records show.
University of Central Florida President John Hitt earned a total compensation package that topped $800,000 in 2009-10, according to a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, making him the fourth-highest paid university head in the country.
Salaries for leaders of Florida's 28 state colleges are also robust, records show.
Compensation packages for state college presidents this year range from a low of $109,565 for John Grosskopf at North Florida Community College to $618,163 for Kenneth Walker at Edison State College, according to records reviewed by the Post.
"I don't know of many families in Florida that haven't had to tighten their belts," Scott said. "I don't know too many businesses that have had to. Every government institution has to do the same thing. We have to step back and say to ourselves, 'What is our core mission?'"