Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a plan this week that he hopes will help Florida students finish school more quickly and with less debt.
At a press conference in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, the governor touted his proposals, which he announced for the first time earlier in the week. He called for freezing state college tuition, expanding the state’s Bright Futures scholarships to cover summer classes and getting rid of sales tax on college textbooks.
Scott said he hoped providing Bright Futures funds for summer courses would enable students to finish their education more quickly. Currently only 44 percent of undergraduate students at the state’s universities graduate within four years, according to the governor.
“When you think about the cost of education, when you think about what it costs to you if you live on campus or the years you’re giving up higher pay after earning your degree, every year it takes to get a degree costs you money and slows down your opportunity to get better,” he said.
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Scott also proposed freezing state college and university fees, stating that out of every credit hour students pay for at universities, nearly $100 goes to fees. Fees typically cover services like healthcare, transportation and student activities. The governor also called for 25 percent cuts in college and university fees for graduate teaching assistants.
“We have plenty of money in the state budget,” Scott said. “Our revenue is continuing to grow and so we’ve got to allocate those dollars in a manner that improves the opportunity for everyone.”
In recent years, lawmakers have raised the standards to qualify for Bright Futures, making it harder for students to get the scholarships. Scott said his priority is expanding Bright Futures for summer classes, which will cost an estimated $34.4 million according to the Tampa Bay Times, but he did not rule out changing the scholarship standards to make more students eligible.
“The most important thing to me is to make sure we can cover their summer, but if we can get more students into Bright Futures I think that would be an outstanding thing to do,” Scott said.
Parts of Scott’s higher education agenda appear to already have support in the State Legislature, which will be back in session in early March. State Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, filed a bill earlier this month to expand Bright Futures to cover summer courses.
House minority leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said in an e-mail that while she thinks Scott’s proposals are a step in the right direction, she wants to see additional changes to the Bright Futures program.
“Changes enacted to Bright Futures in 2011, during Governor Scott’s first year in office, have led to an almost 50% reduction in scholarship recipients in the state, with minority students disproportionally impacted by this short-sighted attempt to trim costs,” she said. “It’s time the Legislature restore Bright Futures Scholarships to their pre-recession funding levels, develop a qualification formula that allows all students a fair chance at receiving their well-earned financial aid, and enable all our children the opportunity to be prepared to get a good-paying job in today’s fast-changing economy, while leaving school without a mountain of debt.”