Senate renews push for higher ed changes


GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Universities would have to develop block tuition plans by next fall, and expansions in Bright Futures scholarships and need-based aid programs would become permanent under a Senate bill filed Wednesday.

The legislation (SB 4), filed by Senate Higher Education Appropriations Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, revives major parts of a higher-education bill (SB 374) passed during the 2017 legislative session but vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

A key difference is the new bill, which will be considered when the Legislature convenes in January, does not include measures related to state colleges. Those issues will be filed in a separate bill by Senate Education Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange.

Scott vetoed the 2017 bill citing concerns about the impact on the state college system.

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who has made elevating the state university system a top priority of his presidency, told the system's Board of Governors on Wednesday that even with Scott's veto of the policy bill, a major portion of the Senate's higher-education initiative is already having a positive impact on the 12 state institutions.

Most of the Senate proposals were included in the new $82 billion state budget, including a record expansion of need-based aid and a major boost in Bright Futures scholarships, which are merit-based.

But as part of the annual budget, as opposed to being put into law, the changes are not permanent.

Negron told the Board of Governors, meeting at the University of Florida, that the idea behind the new Senate bill is “to make these tremendous gains permanent and to continue to build this vision” for an elite university system.

One provision in the bill would make permanent the expansion of the Bright Futures scholarships for the highest-performing students, known as “academic scholars,” to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees and to pay $300 per semester for books. Also, it would permanently allow academic scholars to use their Bright Futures awards to cover summer classes.

A new provision in the bill would expand the Bright Futures scholarships for “medallion” scholars to cover 75 percent of their tuition and fees. The scholarships now cover $77 of each credit hour, which average about $215 per hour across the university system.

The new bill also revives a proposed requirement that universities develop block tuition plans, where students pay a flat fee per semester rather than a credit-hour charge, with the new tuition plans taking effect in the fall of 2018.

“I think block tuition makes sense for a school like us,” said Michael Martin, the new president of Florida Gulf Coast University. “For one thing, it would create a reasonably good incentive for a student to carry as big a (class) load as they possibly can.”

Martin said it would help more students graduate quicker, which is one of the key performance standards for schools.

Kent Fuchs, president of the University Florida, said he likes the provisions in the bill that would bring permanency to the expansion of the need-based and merit-based financial aid programs.

“Any kind of aid that is a combination of need aware and based on merit really supports those students who are bright who can go to college anywhere but they can't afford it, so we support that too,” he said.

Florida State University President John Thrasher, who helped create the original Bright Futures program when he was in the Legislature, said it's “a great thing for students” to restore the scholarship program to cover full tuition, as it was originally designed.

“I think it should be fully funded,” Thrasher said. “I'm proud of Joe (Negron) for doing that.”

Scott said he has not seen the new Senate bill but supports the permanent expansion of the Bright Futures scholarships.

“I've been very supportive of making sure we fully fund Bright Futures,” Scott told reporters in Jacksonville. “I want to make sure that our students have Bright Futures that are covered both in the summer and cover all their costs.”

The new Senate bill also would authorize programs to help schools attract top-level professors and reward high-performing graduate schools. The current budget included $121 million for those programs, but the funding would be in doubt in subsequent years without the legislation.

The bill would also require schools seeking to become “pre-eminent” institutions, which qualifies them for more state funding, to meet a 60 percent four-year graduation rate. But the bill would allow schools, like the University of South Florida, that are expected to reach pre-eminent status in the next year to use the current standard of a 70 percent six-year graduation rate.

The bill would also impose a four-year graduation standard for all schools seeking performance funding. The formula now uses a six-year graduation measure.

Several financial-aid provisions did not survive Scott's veto of the policy bill but would be renewed with passage of the new Senate bill.

Among them, it would double the state match for scholarships aimed at “first generation” in college students. Currently, it's a one-to-one match for the funds.

A provision to extend to out-of-state students the Benacquisto scholarships, which pay full tuition for National Merit Scholars, would also be authorized in the new bill. Even without the out-of-state extension, Negron said funding in the budget increased the Benacquisto scholars to 873 this academic year, up from 665 last year.

The bill would also create a new scholarship program for students from farmworker families.

The Senate bill would prohibit university and state college foundations from using public funds to pay for travel. And by 2023, it would prohibit the “direct-support organizations” from using public funds to pay for personnel.