TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would drastically alter the state’s higher education system, requiring several colleges to merge and making sweeping changes to different scholarship programs passed its first committee in the Florida Legislature on Wednesday, despite bipartisan opposition.
The bill caught some university presidents and even high-ranking Republican lawmakers by surprise. But sponsor Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said it is needed to reduce the cost per degree at smaller institutions and repurpose some state money currently being used for student grants.
The bill would transform the requirements for a tuition assistance grant for students attending private colleges or universities, called the Effective Access to Student Education program.
The program now grants $2,841 to students who attend one of Florida’s about 30 not-for-profit private colleges or universities — including the University of Tampa, the University of Miami, Eckerd College and St. Thomas University in Miami. To be eligible, students must maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average and attend at least part-time. Individual schools can raise the standards for how they issue the awards.
The bill would change the eligibility so only students who can prove financial need would receive the grant. That would eliminate more than 27,000 current students starting in fall 2021, or 63 percent of recipients, according to Bob Boyd, president and CEO of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, which represents those private, nonprofit schools.
Both House Speaker José Oliva and Fine had said a major scholarship bill was coming, saying that there needs to be more strings attached when the state pays for students’ education.
“There are three types of free money for school. There is Bright Futures and a few others that are merit-based, then there’s financial aid (if) you are low-income, and then there’s this one: (you’re) alive,” Fine said earlier in the session. “The taxpayers have a right to have standards.”
But Boyd argues this grant was never intended to be need-based. Rather, it was created in the 1970s to help equalize the cost of attending private schools compared to public universities, since taxpayers already pitch in to keep tuition at those schools low.
In fact, the program grant is much cheaper for the state of Florida than it would be for all private students to transfer to public colleges or universities, which rely much more heavily on public dollars, Boyd and some Republican lawmakers have said.
Additionally, many of Florida’s smaller, private colleges cater to first-generation and minority college students. Three of Florida’s four historically black colleges are private, and 14 of Florida’s private institutions are majority-minority campuses, according to Boyd’s group.
He called the potential change to the Effective Access to Student Education program an “existential threat” to those schools.
Students testified in the House Education committee, sometimes through tears, saying that they make too much money to qualify for financial aid but would be in perilous financial shape if they lost the grant.
Because of the grant, “instead of three jobs I only have to work two,” said Mayson West, a Keiser University student. “I urge you to vote no.”
Despite Oliva’s support of this concept, it’s unclear if the Senate supports it. As of Wednesday, this bill did not have a Senate companion.
Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who chairs the Senate Education committee, said the scholarship for private higher education students is in line with his K-12 philosophy, for the state to help students attend the institution best for them even if it's outside of the public sector.
The second piece of this bill would require New College to merge with Florida State University, and Florida Polytechnic University to merge with the University of Florida. That means that the colleges would combine property and resources and that the smaller schools would cede their independent administrations as they’re absorbed.
Ever since the bill was first published online earlier this week, it received fierce opposition from lawmakers of both parties who represent districts where the schools are located. Fine conceded that he had not notified the presidents of New College or Florida Polytechnic University before the bill had been filed.
But the firestorm had one very notable exception. Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, stood out in his stance, saying in a statement that he is “open to having a discussion” on the mergers. New College is in his district.
Finally, the bill would also makes changes to Florida's "Bright Futures" merit-based college scholarships.
It would eliminate the requirement in law that the state provide a $300 per-student stipend for textbooks to students receiving the top "Academic" scholarship.
For the second-tier "Medallion" award, it would increase the percentage of tuition that students could receive. Currently, that award covers 75% of tuition. But if students are in an associate's degree program at a state college, they could receive 100%, and possibly transfer that higher award amount to a bachelor's program at a university if they have meet certain GPA standards.
Debate in the House Education committee on Wednesday was remarkably passionate by Republicans who opposed the bill. Often, members tend to work out their concerns before the committee begins, in order to present an image of cooperation and a united party.
Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, said the bill did not make sense and it felt “rushed.”
“We will be in jeopardy of maintaining our status as the No. 1 higher education system in the country,” Mariano said, if the bill passed. When it comes to the changes to the private college student grant, “We’ve decided to punish the students that follow the standards we set, ourselves, in statute,” she added.
Many lawmakers, however, ended up voting in favor of the bill, saying they reserved the right to reject it once it got to the House floor.
Fine defended the bill as the correct move for the higher education system’s finances. He said once the painful process of changing EASE was finished, the state could use that money for better purposes, such as increasing financial aid for low-income students only.
“No one is going to stand up here and say, ‘Hey it’s great to take away people’s scholarships,’ or ‘It’s great to close a university.’ That doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing,” Fine said.