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Florida lawmakers push changes for higher education, with mixed results

TALLAHASSEE — Though the Legislature declared that Florida's community colleges cannot add any new four-year degree programs for a year, the moratorium likely won't do much in the long run to curb the popular programs.

The state Board of Education agreed to spend the next 14 months reconsidering how it approves programs. But it didn't commit to cutting back.

"We're very proud of our bachelor degree programs; we've had great success with them," said Randy Hanna, chancellor of the community college division.

The moratorium is one of numerous higher education measures the Legislature enacted, ranging from in-state tuition for veterans and undocumented immigrants to considering another engineering program. Some await Gov. Rick Scott's signature; some already have his backing.

Florida's public colleges, which traditionally did not go beyond two-year degrees, awarded 5,009 bachelor's degrees in 2012-2013, almost double the number from two years prior. The new four-year programs were supposed to focus on meeting the needs of local employers, not duplicate university offerings.

But now 24 colleges offer a total of 175 degree programs.

Sen. Joe Negron, the powerful budget chief, said the colleges are overstepping their bounds.

"To me there's been a well-thought-out effort to move away from their core mission of doing two-year degrees to competing in the four-year degree space," said Negron, R-Stuart.

He floated a plan early in the session that would have cut funding for colleges that offer four-year degrees and required the Legislature, not the Board of Education, to approve any new programs. But the moratorium was the most Negron could get.

• • •

Still, Negron did support a plan that's all about duplication: Sen. John Thrasher's proposal to create separate engineering schools at Florida State University and Florida A&M University, which share one program in Tallahassee.

The idea sparked outrage among FAMU supporters fearing it would take resources from the state's only historically black public university.

House Speaker Will Weatherford refused to support the Senate plan to give FSU $13 million to begin planning the split. Instead, the Board of Governors will receive $500,000 to study the joint engineering school and will have final say on its future.

"Speaker Weatherford held firm on understanding the intent and the mission of this joint school, so we think we're in a great place," said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, a FAMU alum. "Now we'll see what facts come out of the study."

• • •

The most talked-about higher education bill passed this year will allow undocumented immigrants brought to Florida as children to pay in-state tuition rates. They now pay three to four times as much as legal residents.

To be eligible, students must have attended a Florida high school for at least three years.

The Senate estimates this will cost universities $3.9 million and colleges about $4.3 million in tuition revenue in the first year, Sen. John Legg said. That could climb to an annual total of $49 million within four years.

The same measure, House Bill 851, also removes automatic tuition increases tied to inflation in years the Legislature does not grant tuition hikes. And the Board of Governors lost the power to grant "differential" tuition increases to most state universities. Only the University of Florida and FSU could charge up to 6 percent more than others if they reach certain performance goals.

Gov. Rick Scott, seeking to court Hispanics in his bid for re-election, has said he will sign the tuition bill.

• • •

The first bill Scott signed into law this session grants in-state tuition rates to military veterans. The "Florida G.I. Bill," HB 7015, also will help veterans and active service members get job training and connect with potential employers. It passed the Legislature unanimously.

The governor signed off on a more controversial proposal Monday that some student activists had encouraged him to veto. House Bill 115 allows organizations like foundations and booster clubs to discuss fundraising strategies privately, outside the state's government-in-the-sunshine rules.

Budgetwise, public and private higher education institutions will see a boost in their state funding in 2014-2015. State universities will also share $100 million in new performance funding. But the three universities ranked lowest on a scoring system set up by the Board of Governors — New College of Florida, University of West Florida and Florida Atlantic University — will be penalized 1 percent of their base state funding.

The Legislature also created a new scholarship program aimed at keeping high achievers in the state. National Merit Scholars and National Achievement Scholars from Florida will receive a full ride at state universities, including tuition, food and lodging. It is expected to cost the state $2.9 million next year.

Florida lawmakers push changes for higher education, with mixed results 05/14/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 10:05pm]
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