The University of South Florida's quest to become "preeminent," an official status that could elevate the school's prestige and send millions of extra dollars its way, received a positive jolt late Wednesday as Gov. Rick Scott lifted a key barrier.
Scott vetoed a sweeping higher education reform bill that was one of Senate President Joe Negron's top priorities of the 2017 session, saying that the measure "impedes" the ability of state colleges to provide access to low-cost, quality education.
The bill also included provisions expanding popular financial aid programs that help tens of thousands of college and university students, including Florida Bright Futures Academic Scholars, but Scott said those programs are unharmed by the veto because they were also embedded in the full state budget he signed June 2.
USF, meanwhile, had been focused on other language buried deep within the bill's text that dramatically affected its fortunes. Becoming a preeminent university requires that a school meet several requirements, and SB 374 had moved the goalposts on one of them — the graduation rate.
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Currently, preeminence funding hinges in part on a six-year graduation rate of 70%. USF is on track to hit that benchmark in 2018, putting it right on the cusp.
The Senate's higher education bill sought to instead rate schools based on a four-year graduation rate, and it initially set the mark at 50 percent, a standard that USF already meets. But drama erupted when legislators decided to move the benchmark to a 60 percent, setting USF's preeminence drive back until at least 2020.
Scott's veto means the metric stays unchanged at the six-year mark.
The news prompted some USF supporters to start cheering on Twitter, thrilled that preeminence could once again be in the university's grasp.
Was the veto a victory for USF?
"No question," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. "I am pleased for the university."
Surprised by Scott's sudden veto announcement and mindful that the issue could resurface next year, USF officials declined to comment Wednesday evening until they learned more about the veto and its implications.
Scott's rejection of SB 374 halts several of Negron's reforms intended to make the state's 12 public universities nationally competitive, "elite" destinations and refocus the Florida College System back to its mission of addressing local workforce needs.
"This legislation impedes the state college system's mission by capping the enrollment level of baccalaureate degrees and unnecessarily increasing red tape," Scott wrote in his veto letter.
He added: "While the bill makes positive changes to several State University System programs … it does so at the expense of the Florida College System," Scott wrote.
Negron had persuaded the Legislature to give an extra $232 million to those institutions in the annual budget — while simultaneously cutting $25 million from the colleges, which primarily serve low-income students.
College administrators called the disparity "demoralizing" and harmful to services that help students unprepared for college catch up. Many of them spoke in opposition to the Senate's proposed changes, particularly the proposal to restrict their ability to offer four-year degrees.
Senate supporters, however, argued the bill was needed to rein in colleges because of what they considered duplication and competition with programs already offered by Florida's 12 public universities.
SB 374 also would have renamed the state schools as "community colleges" and removed them from the purview of the State Board of Education and state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart. Instead, the colleges would have been overseen by the authority of a new State Board of Community Colleges.
Negron on Wednesday disagreed with Scott's assessment of the bill, saying it was designed to "further elevate Florida's nationally-ranked community colleges through a renewed focus on their core mission."
Despite the veto, it appears that programs that expand financial aid — both merit-based and need-based — will go forward because they were embedded in the main 2017-18 budget act and not dependent on the bill to take effect.
"Bright Futures, faculty recruitment, all of those dollars — $600 plus million — was all tied to the budget," said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is the higher education budget chairman.
Not everyone agreed. Lee called it "a big question" as to whether the scholarship programs would expand. While the money for those programs was in the budget, as Scott noted, the language authorizing the expansion was in SB 374, Lee said. "If that language goes down and it's not replicated in the budget somewhere, then there's no authorization for the government to release those funds."
Negron argued that the money in the budget would expand the scholarships for only one year. He added: "Students and families deserve certainty when making these important decisions, and today's veto makes advance planning much more difficult."
The financial aid benefits include:
• Restoring awards for 111,000 Florida Bright Futures Academic Scholars back to 100 percent of tuition and fees, plus $300 per semester for books and other expenses and aid for the summer semester;
• Expanding eligibility for the Benacquisto Scholarship Program to include out-of-state students;
• Doubling the state's share of a state-to-private match that pays for a grant awarded to students who are the first generation in their family to attend a college or university;
• Establishing a new scholarship program, sponsored by Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, to benefit farm-workers and their children.
Negron told reporters last week he'd spoken recently to community groups and explained to them the extra money Bright Futures scholars would have access to. "I've had parents come up to me with tears in their eyes, saying 'you don't know how much pressure this has taken off of our family,' " he said.
It was not immediately clear whether another cost-savings measure was affected — a policy change requiring state universities to adopt block tuition rates, rather than students having to pay for each credit hour.
Scott approved some funding cuts to the Florida College System when he signed off on the annual 2017-18 state budget on June 2.
SB 374 had easily passed both chambers on the final day of the regular session in May. The Senate approved it 35-3, while the House supported it 85-27.
Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed. Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, email@example.com, @ByKristenMClark