Florida students cry foul over high surcharges

Impact of recent law could add thousands to state tuition bills

Mike Mayo

Columnist Mike Mayo (South Florida Sun Sentinel / August 3, 2014)

Florida's state university students (or their parents) could be in for an unpleasant surprise when they get tuition bills for the upcoming semester: a surcharge that could add hundreds or thousands of dollars to their tab.

The surcharge doubles the cost of "excess" credits – extra courses or those unrelated to chosen majors when students surpass their required hours for degrees by 10 percent. The changes were approved by the Legislature and two governors (Rick Scott, Charlie Crist) over the past five years, but the full brunt is now kicking in as impacted students near graduation.

The rationale, according to the original 2009 bill: "To encourage students to complete their … degrees as quickly and efficiently as possible." The surcharge jumped from 50 percent to 100 percent in 2011. In 2012, the threshold was lowered so that the penalty kicks in when students surpass 110 percent of their required hours (down from 120 percent).

Some students and parents are crying foul, saying they weren't informed of the potential charges when they enrolled, and that the surcharge creates undue hardship for those who switch majors or take specialized programs. Those who first go to two-year state colleges and then transfer to state universities seem to be especially hard hit.

One South Florida parent said his daughter was socked with a $1,022 surcharge for the upcoming semester at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. They didn't want to identified, because she's in a small, specialized program and they're appealing the surcharges, which could top $3,000 by the time she graduates next spring.

"It's not fair – she did everything she was told by her advisers," said the father. "It's like a Catch-22."

His daughter went to community college for two years. Not all her earlier credits aligned with the specialized program at UCF. And they said UCF has added an $800 surcharge for language courses that aren't related to her major, even though UCF requires language credits for a bachelor's degree.

Another UCF student, Ramon Jimenez of Orlando, recently started a petition on change.org protesting the surcharges; more than 1,300 people have signed it. He said he faces $6,150 in surcharges for 30 credit hours he took at community college which don't count toward his electrical engineering degree at UCF. If he doesn't pay, he doesn't get his degree.

A spokeswoman for UCF said students get ample notice about the surcharge, including at orientation sessions where they sign acknowledgment forms. "We do more than the state requires when it comes to notifying students about the rules," Zenaida Kotala wrote by email. "We want our students to have a successful journey to graduation."

According to figures provided by Florida's university governing board, only 618 students were hit by the excess surcharges – totaling $257,785 – for the fall 2013 semester. UCF students accounted for more than half that total, $132,330. But those numbers are expected to increase as the full brunt of the law takes effect.

A 2003 legislative analysis showed that 78 percent of state university students took excess credits, supposedly costing the state $62 million because of tuition subsidies for in-state students. Some students call the high surcharge a de facto tuition increase, and others say it discourages exploration or experimentation outside of majors – which have to be declared very early.

"Since when do we punish people for educating themselves?" Kathy McCarron, of Boca Raton, wrote on the change.org petition page.

Wrote Christina Dixon, of Pompano Beach: "Growing up, we're told going to college … gives you an opportunity to expand your knowledge on multiple subjects. I believe this law cheats us out of getting the most out of our already ridiculously high-priced education."

Wrote Debra Sheridan, of Miami Shores: "Some of the best classes you take might be outside your major, but that doesn't mean you didn't learn and that what you learned is not applicable. The state should be focused on job creation, not taxing students."

mmayo@tribune.com; 954-356-4508

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