Senate pitches major higher education changes

Bills embody initiatives advanced by Senate President Joe Negron

By Lloyd Dunkelberger, News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Senate on Wednesday released a wide-ranging plan to reshape higher education in the state, including an expansion of Bright Futures scholarships, block tuition for universities, stronger requirements for students to graduate on time and a program to attract high-quality faculty.

The bills (SB 2 and SB 4) embody initiatives advanced by Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who toured all 12 Florida university campuses in the spring.

"These bills are key components of a comprehensive higher education agenda that will boost the strength and competitiveness of our state's higher education system as our primary economic engine to drive vibrant, sustainable economic development and growth in high-paying jobs," Negron said in a statement.

Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee on higher education, will take the lead on the legislation. Galvano said the bills "will elevate the prominence of our state universities and increase their ability to compete as national destination institutions, while preserving access and increasing affordability for Floridians."

The Senate released the plan a day after Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a series of proposals aimed primarily at holding down the costs of higher education. Scott's proposals include capping student fees, eliminating sales taxes on textbook purchases and extending Bright Futures scholarships to summer classes.

One major element of the Senate initiative is an emphasis on scholarships and student aid, with Negron saying every student should "have the opportunity to obtain a higher education, regardless of their economic circumstances."

The legislation would increase the top-level award for the merit-based Bright Futures scholarships to cover all tuition and fees and provide a $300 per semester stipend for books. The "academic scholars" program now only covers half of the tuition and fees, which average about $200 per credit hour across the system.

Negron's plan would also allow the top-level Bright Futures recipients to use their scholarships for summer classes, which is similar to a proposal by Scott, though the governor wants to expand the summer provision to all levels of the Bright Futures program.

The Senate's Bright Futures changes would cost an estimated $151 million.

Another provision would extend what is known as the "Benacquisto Scholar Program" to out-of-state students who qualify as National Merit Scholars to attend Florida universities. Currently, the program, which pays full tuition, only applies to in-state residents.

On need-based aid, Negron's plan would double state funding for a matching grant program aimed at first-generation students attending universities or state colleges. The bill would make it a 2-to-1 match, meaning the current $10.6 million program could expand to $15 million or more.

How students pay for their university education could be impacted by another provision that would mandate the 12 universities and the Board of Governors, which oversees the system, develop a "block" tuition plan. The tuition plan would be in place for the fall 2018 classes.

It is part of the Senate's effort to provide more incentives for undergraduates to complete their educations in four years.

"Taxpayers do not see a return when young people languish in school for six or eight years, while working 50 hours a week at low paying jobs so they can afford to take six or nine credits a semester," Negron said in a memo to senators.

The bill would allow universities to develop the details of a block tuition plan themselves. But it would work something like this: Students would be charged for 15 credit hours each semester, rather than paying for each class based on the credit hours. Students would have the opportunity to take more credit hours than 15, effectively making their education cheaper and reducing their time on campus. But if they opted to take fewer hours, say 12, they would be financially penalized.

The higher-education plan would also put more pressure on universities and state colleges to graduate students on time by linking performance funding to those measurements.

The bill would hold universities to a four-year graduation rate of 50 percent or better, rather than using the current six-year standard. Only 44 percent of students, on a system-wide average, now meet that four-year standard.

Also in an effort to move students more efficiently through the higher-education system, the Senate initiative seeks to improve the "2-plus-2" system in which students spend two years at a state college and then finish the next two years at a state university.

The legislation would require all 28 state colleges to develop at least one agreement where students are guaranteed access to a state university after completing requirements at the college.

Some of these arrangements are already in place including the University of Central Florida's DirectConnect program, which has agreements with local state colleges, allowing students to finish their degrees at UCF after completing the transfer requirements.

In an effort to improve the quality of state universities, the legislation would establish several new programs seeking to boost the quality of university faculty and graduate programs, including law, medicine and business.

The "World Class Faculty and Scholar" program would provide a fund to help universities recruit and retain top-level scholars and researchers. The amount of the funding would be determined in the annual budget negotiations.

Another provision could allow matching state funding to let universities finish building projects under the suspended Courtelis grant program, which provided a 1-to-1 match for private donations.

The potential matching amounts include $28 million for the University of Central Florida; $28 million for the University of Florida; $22.6 million for the University of South Florida; $10.5 million for Florida State University; $7.9 million for Florida International University; and $1.6 million for Florida Gulf Coast University.

The higher-education package is a top priority in the Senate, with the bills slated for committee hearings by the end of this month.

In the House, Rep. Elizabeth Porter, a Lake City Republican who chairs the Post-Secondary Education Subcommittee, said she expects some "overlap" in the House higher-education initiatives with the Senate and governor's plans, although there will be some differences.

Porter said the House is open to ideas like the Bright Futures expansion and providing more incentives for students to graduate on time, although many of the proposals are linked to the overall state budget, which remains uncertain.

News Service of Florida