Florida Senate Backs Higher Education Overhaul

Florida – The Florida Senate on Thursday voted unanimously to permanently expand Bright Futures merit scholarships for some 94,000 university and college students.

The legislation (SB 4) revives a higher-education initiative, known as the “Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act,” that was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott last year when he objected to its impact on the state college system.

Most of the changes occurred in the current academic year despite Scott’s veto, including some of the scholarship expansions, which were part of the state budget. But the new bill would make those changes permanent and expand them.

“The bill we passed today really transforms our commitment to higher education,” said Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who has made higher-education reforms a top priority of his two-year stint as the Senate leader.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who sponsored the bill, said the initiative was aimed at expanding financial aid to students, increasing the quality of the system and providing more accountability measures, including holding the schools to a four-year graduation rate.

Galvano said the overall aim was to bring the quality of the universities more in line with Florida’s ranking as the nation’s third-largest state.

“We need to have a university system and entire higher-education system that is commensurate and worthy of the status we continue to achieve in all different realms,” Galvano said.

The bill will cover 100 percent of the tuition and fees for some 50,000 top-performing Bright Futures students, who are known as “academic scholars.” It also includes $300 per semester for textbooks and allows the scholarships to be used for summer classes.

In a new provision, another 44,000 students, known as “medallion” scholars, will see their Bright Futures scholarships increase from the current coverage of roughly 50 percent of the cost of tuition and fees to 75 percent. The boost would cover about $159 of the average $200 per-credit hour charge for university courses. It will also cover summer classes.

The bill expands some need-based aid programs, including doubling the state match for a scholarship program for “first generation” college students. The aim is to extend the program to some of the 15,442 students who qualified for the grants but received no funding.

It also funds a new scholarship program for an estimated 50 students coming from farmworker families.

And the legislation would make permanent a “world-class” scholars program for universities. The program would provide funding to attract top-level professors and researchers. The measure also establishes another program that rewards top-performing law, medicine, and other professional schools.

Other major provisions in the bill include a requirement that state universities develop a block tuition plan by the fall of 2018, where students would pay a flat rate each semester, rather than paying for classes on a per-credit hour basis.

The block tuition plans, which will be developed by the universities, are expected to provide a financial incentive for students to take more classes and graduate more quickly.

The legislation would require the state university system to use a four-year graduation rate as part of its performance funding formula, instead of the current six-year measure.

Schools seeking a “pre-eminent” university status would have to have at least a 60 percent four-year graduation rate, although the metric will be phased in over the next year.

A key difference in the new bill, from the prior legislation, is that it does not contain many provisions related to the state college system.

A separate state college bill (SB 540), which would create a new oversight board for the system and would cap the number of four-year degrees awarded, is pending in the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Several Democratic senators raised questions about whether the state is doing enough to help low-income students who do not necessarily qualify for the merit scholarships.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the number of minority students qualifying for Bright Futures scholarships has dropped sharply since the state increase the qualifications, which include grade-point averages and scores on tests like the SAT.

Thurston said those students could use support for issues like textbooks and summer scholarships that the Bright Futures students are receiving.

“We’ve got to be able to say ‘well, we need to find a way to help that group of students,’” Thurston said.

The Legislature did expand the state’s main need-based aid program this year by $121 million, covering some 234,824 students, an increase of more than 122,000 students receiving Florida Student Assistance Grants.

The grants, which average $1,147 per student this year, are used on top of the federally funded Pell grants, which are awarded based on family income levels.

Galvano, who oversees the Senate budget subcommittee on higher-education spending, said the Senate expects to maintain that level of need-based aid in the new state budget.

Photo courtesy Rawpixel.com and Shutterstock.com.

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