A $162 million plan to improve state funding for student financial aid opportunities and make Florida’s public colleges and universities more competitive passed the state Senate on Thursday with near-unanimous support — marking early success for one of Senate President Joe Negron’s top priorities.
Senate Bill 2 is the cornerstone of proposed reforms that Negron, R-Stuart, wants for the state higher education system this year. Other potential changes aimed at the state college system are more controversial and moving slowly through the Senate.
This is one of the most bold pieces of legislation in my career with regard to higher education.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton
A companion measure to SB 2 still needs to be approved by the House. That package (HB 3 and HB 5) has yet to be considered, and it could now face more difficulty due to clashing priorities — and rising tensions — between Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.
The proposed reforms in SB 2 include an array of changes to Florida’s public colleges and universities, including:
▪ Improving financial aid for students, such as by restoring 100 percent funding for Bright Futures scholars and expanding funding to include the summer term, creating a scholarship program for migrant workers and their children, expanding benefits to National Merit Scholars by allowing out-of-state students to qualify, and doubling the state-to-local match for a grant program that helps first-generation college and university students;
▪ Requiring universities to implement block-tuition rates by fall 2018;
▪ Changing accountability metrics — which are linked to state performance funding — to emphasize that students graduate on time;
▪ Establishing an articulation program to better help students who begin at a state college to finish at a state university;
▪ Establishing programs to recruit and retain top faculty at Florida’s public universities.
“This is one of the most bold pieces of legislation in my career with regard to higher education,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and the chamber’s higher education budget chairman who shepherded the bill through the Senate.
“I think the impacts will go far beyond what happens within the institutions and will result in more economic opportunity, will result in jobs and will certainly result in more return on investment for our taxpayers,” Galvano said.
SB 2 passed the Senate by a 35-1 vote. Although the bill has been one of his pet projects, Negron’s “yes” vote won’t count in the official record because he didn’t cast it until after voting ended. That was because of “miscommunication” with the chamber secretary, his spokeswoman Katie Betta told the Herald/Times.
Restoring full funding for the Bright Futures scholarship and expanding it to the summer term would affect about 45,000 academic recipients for the 2017-18 school year. That’s the predominant expense for the legislation, alone estimated at $151 million.
Qualifying criteria to receive Bright Futures money won’t change, which is something Democrats didn’t like. Sen. Perry Thurston Jr., D-Fort Lauderdale, said the Legislature’s changes several years ago to raise the standards of who could qualify for Bright Futures disproportionately cut off access to black and Hispanic students.
“There is a separate class of students who need the assistance as well — who are good students but just not quite Bright Futures,” he said.
Galvano said: “We’re not going in and changing the thresholds or metrics for achieving within Bright Futures. That’s a merit-based program.”
Full-time students would also save potentially thousands of dollars through the block-tuition policies that would be required of universities. If enacted, students starting in fall 2018 would be able to take additional courses each term without extra expense. Lawmakers hope that will be an incentive for them to complete course work faster and graduate on time or even early.
But universities could stand to lose millions in the transition, an impact that had yet to be fully accounted for, senators said.
“Florida State University says it could cost $40 million of their bottom line,” said Lake Worth Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens, who was the only opposing vote. “The intent of the program is good, but there is a real fiscal impact.”
He had sought to require each university to study the fiscal impact of block tuition before they would have to implement it, but his amendment was shot down.
Meanwhile, Clemens and several other Democratic senators raised concerns that the financial aid expansions in SB 2 focused too heavily on merit-based programs and not enough on programs helping those who struggle to pay for college regardless of their academic level.
There is a separate class of students who need the assistance as well.
Sen. Perry Thurston Jr., D-Fort Lauderdale
On Wednesday, Democrats attempted several amendments to ease their concerns; all were rejected by the chamber’s narrow Republican majority — including one that would give need-based students priority for the state’s two tuition-assistance programs that help any Florida resident pay for attending a for-profit or nonprofit private college or university.
Clemens said the “sons and daughters of millionaires” shouldn’t get state aid over students who truly need the money.
“I find it frustrating that we would talk about giving $3,000 scholarships to students whose parents make well over seven figures a year and not focus on giving those dollars to those in need,” he said.
Galvano responded that the state still saves money by having the students attend a private university, regardless of the student’s income level.
Negron and Galvano vowed that the Senate budget proposal — which will be released later in the session — will call for more funding for need-based financial aid.