TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Presidents of Florida's two leading research universities suggested Friday that lawmakers let them pay for expanding expensive science, technology, engineering and math programs by charging those so-called STEM students higher tuition.
University of Florida's Bernie Machen and Florida State University's Eric Barron also told the House Education Committee their schools and possibly some others should be allowed to bring up tuition rates, now among the lowest in the nation, closer to the national average. Current law lets the Legislature and Board of Governors approve annual increases totaling no more than 15 percent.
Gov. Rick Scott, who has made job creation his top priority, has been pushing universities to boost STEM degree production because there's greater demand for those graduates in the marketplace.
Both universities are taking steps to attract more students into STEM classes, but Education Committee Chairman Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, asked Machen and Barron for suggestions on how to pay for the additional laboratories, equipment and other costs that make STEM classes more expensive than other curricula.
Both proposed raising STEM tuition and said they didn't believe that would discourage students from majoring in those areas. Instead, they said, it would make those programs more attractive and successful.
"A STEM degree person should pay more for that than they would, say, an education degree," Machen told the panel. "If you look at return on investment after graduation, look at the pent-up demand for STEM hires, you can make a good case that since that program costs more you ought to have a (higher) tuition for those programs."
Barron said students taking lower cost humanities courses now are subsidizing STEM students because their tuition rates are the same. Expanding STEM would exacerbate that inequity.
"My personal feeling is I would charge STEM students more and deliver something better," Barron said.
He said Florida State is doing such things as cutting STEM class sizes and offering undergraduates one-on-one research opportunities with faculty members. That's more costly but pays off in better student success rates, Barron said.
Florida is launching a new Innovation Academy that eventually will increase STEM enrollment by 2,000 without a need for new facilities by operating only during the spring and summer semesters, which have lower enrollment rates than the fall semester. More faculty, though, will be needed, Machen said. He said the academy received 2,300 applications for 500 slots.
Another way to attract more students to STEM classes would be increasing the amounts of the state's Bright Futures scholarships for those programs, the two presidents suggested. That change would require legislative action.
Barron said the STEM tuition differentials would be relatively small.
"You're not looking at it and saying, `Oh, it's $3,000 more to be a chemistry major than it is to be a classics major,"' Barron said. "It's not of that magnitude."
Proctor said he understood the presidents' reasoning in light of budget cuts the Legislature has ordered in recent years.
"If you're going to come back and say we need to maintain state STEM and increase STEM then it seems to me it stands to reason we've got to figure out how we're going to fund that without cannibalizing other programs," Proctor said.
Scott spokesman Lane Wright didn't offer an opinion on the STEM tuition idea.
In an email, he wrote that Scott simply wants the universities "to get smarter about how to prepare students for the work force" and "find affordable ways to make quality degrees in STEM affordable and available to as many students as possible."
In making their pitch for raising overall tuition, Machen noted his school's annual in-state rate of about $5,000 is $2,500 below the national average for public universities. He said coming closer to that mark could help his school compete for more top faculty members, improve the quality of its programs and move its national academic rank from the top 20 to the top 10.
"If I charged instantly the average public university tuition in this country, I could double every STEM program at Florida State University and have money left over," Barron said. He said he wasn't suggesting going up that much but just wanted to illustrate what a bargain Florida university students are getting.
The House committee next week will meet with presidents of the other nine state universities. House Speaker Dean Cannon has asked the panel to begin discussing ways to bring order to a system he says lacks focus.