Florida Politics

University tuition, financial aid reforms ready for Florida Senate vote

Bradenton Republican state Sen. Bill Galvano, left, speaks with current Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, during the 2016 session.
Bradenton Republican state Sen. Bill Galvano, left, speaks with current Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, during the 2016 session. Tampa Bay Times

A top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is ready for the full Senate to vote on when the 2017 session begins March 7.

The higher education package — formerly two bills now blended into one (SB 2) — includes a variety of reforms intended to elevate Florida’s State University System and its state colleges to a more competitive level, nationally and internationally.

“We should be at the very top of our game in our state university and college system,” said Bradenton Republican Sen. Bill Galvano, the higher ed budget chairman who spearheaded the legislation. “We should raise expectations, and that’s what we’re doing.”

SB 2 — dubbed the “Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act of 2017” — advanced unanimously out of the Senate’s full budget committee Thursday morning with some additional revisions. Negron told the Herald/Times the bill will be among the first considered by the chamber during the first week of session next month.

House companion bills (HB 3 and HB 5), filed last month by Hialeah Republican Rep. Bryan Avila, have not yet been considered by that chamber’s committees.

The proposed reforms include:

▪ Changing accountability metrics — which are linked to state performance funding — so as to promote on-time graduation for public university and college students;

▪ Improving financial aid for students, such as restoring 100-percent funding for Bright Futures scholars, creating a scholarship program for migrant workers and their children, expanding the Benacquisto Scholar program to allow out-of-state students to qualify, and revising the 1st Generation Matching Grant Program;

▪ Requiring universities to implement block-tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state full-time students by fall 2018;

▪ Establishing an articulation program to better help students begin their higher education at a state college and finish at a state university;

▪ Establishing programs to recruit and retain top faculty at Florida’s public universities.

During Thursday’s Appropriations meeting, some senators said they’d like to see additional changes to the bill that increase need-based financial aid opportunities for students who can’t afford to attend a university and might not be eligible for one of the state’s scholarship programs.

A few audience members also urged senators to ensure that in promoting on-time graduation, they don’t impose unintended consequences — such as punishing student populations that simply can’t graduate within four years because of extenuating circumstances, like a need to work full-time in order to pay for school.

A separate reform bill in the Senate that more specifically targets the state college system — and would restrict their ability to offer new four-year degrees — is still working its way through the committee process.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark