TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — The University of Florida and Florida State University could soon have the power to set higher tuition rates than the state’s other universities.

A House panel approved the measure Tuesday that would allow both the University of Florida and Florida State University to raise tuition rates above the current limits., while a Senate panel late last week attached the provision to an unrelated bill.

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The legislation (PCB EDC 12-02) is the first piece of a reform package that has been weeks in the making. Lawmakers listened to input from each of the state’s 11 universities and a number of state colleges before beginning to piece together what Education Chairman Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, has suggested will be the foundation for future reform efforts.

The bill passed the committee 11-7, with Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne, voting with the committee’s six Democratic members against the bill.

The measure would allow universities that meet 11 of 14 criteria to raise tuition by as much as they want, and to vary tuition by program, subject to the approval of the Florida Board of Governors. Currently, UF and FSU are the only schools that might be able to put the increases in place.

That follows university presidents asking for more flexibility to increase tuition, particularly if the state seriously wants to make progress in the science, technology, engineering and math fields that Gov. Rick Scott says should be a priority. STEM degrees are among the costliest a university can provide.

Supporters say the bill would help the state’s flagship institutions catch up with their nationally prominent peers. Florida currently ranks 46th among the states in tuition rates.

“We’re not going to catch them at the rate we’re going, and if you don’t catch them, you’re not going to compete with them,” Proctor told the committee.

But Democrats said universities were eager for tuition increases largely because the Legislature has underfunded the state’s higher-education system in the current economic downturn. And they argued that now is not the time to hit families with even higher tuition bills.

“I have a hard time putting that burden on the students and on parents who are already struggling with median incomes that have been stagnant for a number of years and an unemployment rate that still hovers above 10 percent,” said Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.

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Universities are already allowed to increase tuition, up to a total of 15 percent over the previous year when combined with what the Legislature approves. But 30 percent of any increase above what lawmakers approve must be dedicated to financial aid, and there are limits on how the remainder of the money can be spent.

If approved, the schools could move forward with the idea later this year. The proposed Senate budget, which is yet to be approved, currently has no tuition increase for universities this year, though the House budget does propose an 8 percent increase.

Under the bill, institutions could set different rates for different degree programs, something FSU President Eric Barron said his university would likely consider.

“Should every student pay for us to invest more in STEM because of the job opportunities?” he asked rhetorically.

Barron also downplayed the size of potential increases, saying the dollar amount of the current 15 percent increases are less than smaller proportional increases in other states.

The measure faces an uncertain future. A similar proposal is moving in the Senate as an amendment to another bill, but Scott has said he isn’t interested in a tuition increase. Proctor said there was still hope the governor might view the current measure differently.

“This program doesn’t say anybody has to raise it,” Proctor said. “It simply says, this is the way to go if you want to improve the national standing of our university system and our universities.”

The committee is expected to consider a bill dealing with other aspects of higher education at a meeting Thursday.

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