The Florida Senate is poised to approve a major higher-education package that would expand the use of Bright Futures scholarships and tighten graduation standards for universities and state colleges.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted to combine the major elements of Senate President Joe Negron's higher-education initiative into one bill (SB 2), which also creates funding pools that will allow state universities to hire and retain top-level faculty and reward outstanding graduate programs.
It was the legislation's last stop before it moves to the Senate floor, where it is expected to get a full vote during the first week of the legislative session that begins March 7.
Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican sponsoring the bill, said Negron's aim is to elevate Florida's public universities to a “pre-eminent” level on par with public schools like the University of Michigan or the University of Virginia.
“We're the third largest state in the union. The number one destination in the world,” Galvano said. “We should be at the very top of our game when it comes to our college and university system.”
A key portion of the legislation focuses on speedy turn-around for college and university students.
The initiative would impose a higher performance standard on universities, replacing the current six-year graduation metric with a four-year measure for undergraduates.
At the state college level, the legislation would hold the 28 colleges more closely to a two-year measure for students seeking an associate degree and a four-year measure for baccalaureate degrees.
At the request of the state college presidents, the Senate committee modified the college measure, keeping intact a program that sets the highest standards for colleges seeking to be designated as “distinguished” institutions.
The bill would give the state Board of Education more flexibility in defining the cohort of “full-time” students who would be held to the two-year and four-year graduation metrics.
State college advocates had asked for the flexibility, arguing that the system serves more “non-traditional” students, including older students, working students and minority students.
Ava Parker, president of Palm Beach State College, said the Senate modifications “moves us in the right direction.”
At the same time, the legislation aims to provide incentives for students to graduate more quickly.
One provision would expand the Bright Futures merit scholarship program to cover full tuition and fees for the highest-performing students, who are known as “academic scholars.”
It would also provide $300 per semester for books and would extend their scholarships to the summer term, not now covered.
Gov. Rick Scott has advanced a similar proposal but wants to cover all Bright Futures students in the summer term.
For lower-income students, the Senate bill would double the state match for a scholarship program for “first-generation” college students.
At the request of Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, the Senate committee added a scholarship program that would cover full tuition each year for 50 students from farmworker families.
Another incentive for students could be “block tuition,” where students are charged a flat fee for each semester rather than paying for classes on a credit-hour basis. For instance, they may pay a fee representing the cost of 12 credit hours but could take up to 15 credit hours.
But, while mandating that universities adopt a block tuition plan by the fall of 2018, the proposal leaves the details up to the schools and the Board of Governors, which oversees the system.
Marshall Ogletree, who represents the United Faculty of Florida, said block tuition “is not a bad idea.”
“But I know everybody is a little nervous about it,” he said. “How do we make it revenue neutral? How do we make sure we don't lose funding?”
Negron's “Excellence in Higher Education Act” is also dependent on funding in the new state budget.
In addition to money for the expansion of Bright Futures and other scholarships, senators have tentatively set aside $65 million for a program to recruit university faculty and $50 million to reward top-level graduate programs in medicine, law, business, engineering and other fields.
Negron said the legislation remains centered on graduating students on time and finding high-demand jobs.
“This legislation will help to ease financial barriers that impede on-time graduation and delay students entering their chosen careers,” Negron, R-Stuart, said in a statement after Thursday's committee vote. “Over time, these key policy enhancements and targeted financial investments in faculty and infrastructure will enhance the national reputation of Florida's state university system.”