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Florida bill would limit college aid for degrees that don’t lead to jobs

Republican lawmakers argue that degrees vary in value and should not be funded equally.
State Sen. Dennis Baxley has filed a bill that would limit financial aid for degrees the state deems unlikely to result in a job.
State Sen. Dennis Baxley has filed a bill that would limit financial aid for degrees the state deems unlikely to result in a job. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Feb. 24
Updated Feb. 24

State financial aid for college would be based on whether a student’s course of study is likely to result in a job after graduation, under a bill filed Tuesday in the Florida Legislature.

The bill, SB 86, was filed by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. It would require the Board of Governors and the State Board of Education to approve a list of career certificate, undergraduate and graduate degree programs that lead directly to employment. The list would be updated every year. And students in programs not on the list would receive less aid, a maximum of 60 credit hours instead of the 120 hours typically needed for a bachelor’s degree.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Baxley said his own background inspired the bill.

While he said his bachelor’s degree in sociology, with a minor in psychology, has been helpful through his career in better understanding people, he said it could only get him “two bucks and a cup of coffee in most towns.”

It was a second associate degree that gave him the credentials to launch his career in funeral services, he said.

“I think some people are disappointed when they get their college degree and they’re still not hire-able with the kind of income they were hoping to achieve with that amount of work,” Baxley said. “We think that this will reward those people who are on task and that are looking for the best career options for their families and will expand their knowledge base. If we’re going to use public money, let’s try to be more intentional about connecting people with career paths.”

He said he hopes the guidance of the Board of Governors can help people identify paths to gainful employment.

The legislation was announced Tuesday in a news release containing statements from top lawmakers echoing Baxley’s rationale for the bill.

“All too often the debate surrounding higher education focuses on the cost to the student, in terms of tuition and fees, but never the cost to the taxpayer or the actual value to the student,” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said. “The reality is a degree does not guarantee a job. This legislation rebalances state financial aid programs to cover the cost of tuition and fees for general education requirements and then for targeted programs that we know will lead to jobs in our communities.”

In a December interview with the Times, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, outlined the same position.

“The taxpayers shouldn’t necessarily be funding each degree to the same degree,” he said. “And that’s because there are particular needs throughout our state, throughout our economy.”

Sprowls cited nursing as an example of a degree that “might be far more valuable” to the state and its students than a discipline that is in less demand.

“While there should be a plethora of options for students,” he said, “that doesn’t mean the taxpayer should pay the same amount regardless of what the students choose.”

The bill also would reduce the number of credit hours that can be funded by the Bright Futures program by the number of college credit hours earned while a student is in high school, according to the news release.

It would add additional, alternative eligibility options for students who earn an associate degree through dual enrollment, or an Advanced Placement Capstone Diploma with scores of four or higher on six AP exams, the release said. And it would allow unused Bright Futures credit hours to be applied toward graduate studies, providing the graduate program is on the state’s approved list.

In addition, the legislation would create two grant programs. One would be the Florida Bright Opportunities Grant Program to provide more funding for Pell Grant-eligible students in a certificate or associate degree program. The other would be the Florida Endeavor Scholarship, covering tuition and fees for students without a high school diploma who wish to enroll in a certificate or high school equivalency program at a career center or college.

“We also want to make it easier for returning students who did not finish high school to have access to certification programs at our colleges and career centers,” Baxley said in the release. “Dropping out of high school in your teenage years shouldn’t be a lifelong barrier to a good job.”

He said the bill aims to align education with the workforce.

“It’s good to be well-rounded,” Baxley said. “But it’s even more important to fit that into a planned program where you’re going to be able to be independent financially rather than sitting there with debt.”