Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Education

Florida lawmakers mulling ways to make state universities more affordable

TALLAHASSEE — With another school year nearing, parents and college students across Florida are making weekend trips to the store, gathering supplies for dorm rooms, apartments and preparing for that seismic shift from home to campus.

Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers are getting ready for changes, too. At those same colleges and universities.

A reworking of the popular Bright Futures scholarship, a new focus on making students finish school in four years and a major overhaul of how tuition is paid are just some of the ideas state policymakers are roughing out, even as campuses brace for another semester's influx of students.

"My personal vision is that our universities in Florida will, at some point in time, be thought of as national elite destination universities," said incoming Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican whose district includes northern Palm Beach County.

Negron concedes, "It won't happen in two years. But we can get a really good start toward that."

Negron wants to steer another $1 billion toward Florida's 12 public universities, helping finance that reputational upgrade.

Part of it will include rebuilding the Bright Futures scholarship so that its top award again covers 100 percent of tuition and fees, along with a $300 per-semester stipend for books.

"Where your money is, there your heart is also," Negron has said of his priority.

On Florida campuses, where parents and students acknowledge hearing of the changes being kicked around, there are questions. And some doubts.

Chase Labash, an 18-year-old freshman from Port Orange at Florida State University, is a top-ranked Bright Futures student.

But he said pouring more money into the high end of the program may not be that good an idea.

"I think it would be better to bring up the lower Bright Futures award," Labash said. It would help more people. And it might help more families that are struggling to put a kid through school.

The students with the highest grades earning the so-called Academic Scholars award now receive about half the average tuition cost for the state's 12 universities. Bright Futures, which was created in 1997, paid the entire tuition cost of tuition for Academic Scholars in its early years — a level Negron wants restored.

The more heavily used, second-tier Florida Medallion Scholars award is aimed generally at students getting strong "B" grades. But it isn't targeted for change. Medallion Scholars used to get 75 percent of college tuition and fees, but it covers less than 40 percent now.

"The Academic award winners have access to other grants and scholarships," Labash said. "They might not need the 100 percent funding as much as other families."

Leah Percal, an FSU freshman from Fort Lauderdale, is a Bright Futures Medallion Scholars award winner. About 86,000 received Medallion Scholars awards in 2014-15, more than double the number getting the Academic Scholars award, according to the state's latest records.

"I have Florida Prepaid, like a lot of my friends," Percal said of the state's longtime program that allows families to save for tuition when their future students are still in diapers.

"I don't know if increasing Bright Futures will have much of an effect on that," she said.

It would. And could even lead to students getting money back from the state.

Lawmakers are expected to consider the overhaul in next spring's Legislature, although preliminary review will begin soon after the November elections.

But for many parents heading into the complex world of higher education — and paying for it — the proposals need, well, further study.

"It's hard to say if it's good or not," said Gary Augustus, a marketer from Boca Raton, whose son, Justin, is starting at FSU. "But providing more scholarship money for good performing students makes sense. It's all about merit. It's an incentive, isn't it? We all work that way."

Negron also has put in play the idea of students paying a block tuition, rather than paying per credit hour.

Paying a flat rate fee is seen as encouraging students to take more credits per semester — taking five courses instead of four — in an effort to help them complete a bachelor's degree in four years.

Only 44 percent of students attending Florida's public universities graduate in four years. The state system's six-year graduation rate, which many schools now embrace as normal, is 71 percent.

Although it may not seem impressive, Florida's six-year graduation rate is ranked first among the nation's 10 largest states. Students and educators say college can easily get extended, when majors are changed, required courses get filled up, or finances force a break.

The governor is also on board with getting students to finish school more swiftly. Scott is touting a "Finish in Four, Save More" plan for universities, urging they remove any additional fees for online classes and make it easier to get class credit for internships.

He also wants the Legislature to expand Bright Futures to cover summer classes, an idea lawmakers ignored last year.

"What's your path, what's your plan, how can you get out of here in four years? What can we do to help you?" Scott said are questions students should be asked. "By the way, it is going to cost you more if you stay longer."

Brianna Holness, a 20-year FSU junior from Fort Lauderdale, said a goal should be to graduate in four years.

"A lot of times, people come to college and they forget that their main goal is to learn and to leave," she said.

Lawmakers got alarmed at the rising cost of Bright Futures about a decade ago, with the program peaking at $429 million a year paid out of state revenue in 2008-09.

In 2011, the Legislature made it tougher to qualify for the scholarships, and the number of students receiving them declined from 179,076 in 2010-11, to 128,545 in the 2014-15 year.

The top award that year went to 40,762 students -- costing taxpayers $105.8 million. It's not clear how much Negron's proposal could inflate those numbers, but State University System officials seem to be on board.

"I haven't identified a negative to the system with that," Tom Kuntz, chairman of the State University System Board of Governors, said of the Bright Futures funding increase.

But for Negron to succeed — and for Scott to light a fire under four-year degrees — both leaders need the state's traditionally more conservative state House to go along. In the House, there hasn't been much talk about the Bright Futures plan, which is gaining traction in the Senate.

Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, cautioned he sees a "limited pot of money" for Bright Futures.

"We support the concept," he added. "But we have to have a larger discussion about higher education. Whether in scholarships or four-year graduation rates, we have to remember, not every student fits the same mold."

John Kennedy writes for The Palm Beach Post. Email: jkennedy(at)pbpost.com.

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