TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – For Florida residents, attending a state university or college is a bargain.
This academic year, in-state students at Florida's 12 universities will pay an average of $6,091 in tuition and fees for 30 credit hours, which is nearly 40 percent below the national average of $9,970 for four-year public schools, according to the College Board.
At Florida's 28 state colleges, full-time students will pay an average of $3,205 in tuition and fees, which is 10 percent below the national average of $3,570, according to the College Board.
And when the Florida Legislature convenes its 2018 session on Jan. 9, lawmakers are expected to further ease the financial burden by expanding merit- and need-based aid.
The scholarship expansions are part of Senate President Joe Negron's initiative to improve the quality and accessibility of Florida's higher-education system.
Lawmakers backed most of the higher-education package in the 2017 session, although some of the changes were lost when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill after raising concerns about its impact on the state college system.
Legislation (SB 4) that will be on the Senate floor early in the 2018 session would make permanent an expansion in Bright Futures scholarships and would authorize programs that recognize high-performing graduate schools and efforts to hire top-level faculty and researchers at state universities. The bill would also hold universities to a four-year graduation standard in performance funding.
“I'm very encouraged and very optimistic we will get that done,” Negron, R-Stuart, said in an interview with The News Service of Florida.
Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who oversees higher-education spending in the Senate, said the initiative reflects “a real desire to make sure no one has an obstacle to obtaining a higher education.”
“We're going to do two things at once,” said Galvano, who is sponsoring the main Senate bill. “We're going to create much greater access, which in the end results in a more qualified workforce and more innovation in the economy. And the other thing is we are going to heighten the (quality) level of the institutions that we have in the state of Florida.”
Several provisions in the bill affect the 94,000 students who have merit-based Bright Futures scholarships.
One measure would make permanent a decision to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees for the top-performing Bright Futures students, who are known as “academic scholars.” The bill also includes $300 for books for both the fall and spring semesters and would allow academic scholars to use the scholarships during the summer.
A new provision, which was not included in the 2017 legislation, would also boost Bright Futures scholarships for “medallion” scholars, who currently receive $77 for each credit hour. Credit hours average more than $200 across the system.
The bill would expand the scholarships to 75 percent of the tuition and fees, or $159 for each credit hour.
The legislation, with the support of Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, would also allow medallion scholars to use their scholarships during the summer.
The medallion scholarship expansion would cost some $77 million, with an additional $27.6 million for the summer semesters beginning in 2019, according to Senate analysts.
Lawmakers are also expected to build on a need-based aid expansion, which boosted the Florida Student Assistance Grant program by $121 million and expanded coverage to some 234,824 students this year, an increase of more than 122,000 students receiving the aid.
The grants, which average $1,147 per student this year, are used on top of federally funded Pell grants, which are awarded based on family income levels.
The new legislation also would double the state's match for students in the “First Generation” grant program, which helps students with financial need who come from families where parents have not earned college degrees.
In the 2016-17 academic year, 8,361 university and state college students received the awards, which averaged $1,270, although another 15,442 students were eligible but did not receive funding.
The program is particularly important to state colleges, which have the majority of students who qualify for the program.
Another provision in the bill, which was advanced by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, would create a scholarship program to cover full tuition and fees for students from farmworker families.
The program, which would cost some $500,000, would award up to 50 scholarships per year.
At the university level, another measure in the bill could impact student finances.
The legislation would require state universities to develop a “block tuition” program by the fall of 2018. In such a program, students would pay a flat rate each semester rather than paying for classes on a credit-hour basis.
For instance, a student could pay a fee representing 15 credit hours but take classes totaling 18 or more credit hours, which would represent a savings.
However, if a student paid a fee representing 15 credit hours but took only 12 hours of classes, it would represent a financial penalty.