Nearly a decade since the luster on Florida's signature merit scholarship program began to grow dim, state lawmakers have taken a decisive step toward restoring its appeal.
Just three days into the 2018 Legislative session, the Florida Senate voted unanimously Thursday to introduce sweeping changes to state higher education — starting by slashing the tuition bills of nearly 100,000 top students.
If the Florida House follows suit, the Bright Futures Scholarship Program could once again permanently award full tuition and most fees, plus $300 per semester for textbooks, to top-tier students who attend public colleges and universities in Florida.
The tier of students just below them would receive 75 percent of tuition and most fees. Both these "Academic" and "Medallion" scholars would be able to use the money for summer classes, too.
The Senate's approval marks a dramatic investment of $124 million in a program that suffered after the recession, but that proponents say is worth the expense to keep talented students in state and increase college access.
"Florida is making sure there is access for our bright students, and students who have financial need and students from all different backgrounds who maybe just decades ago, or even years ago, would not have the opportunity to attend the university system," said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the bill's sponsor.
The Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act, or Senate Bill 4, had sailed on a fast-track through three committees without a single "no" vote. It was a high priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart and Galvano, his likely successor.
The first bill on the Senate's docket this session, it passed with 34 yeas and no opposition.
A companion bill is scheduled to be heard by three committees in the House.
The bill also introduces a spate of changes that would send ripple effects throughout the state university system as Negron and Galvano aim to boost Florida's profile as a college destination on the national stage. Its provisions take aim at transparency, quality, faculty recruitment and accountability measures such as graduation rates.
For instance, the bill would raise the bar in judging universities' performance by rewarding them based on four-year rather than six-year graduation rates.
It also would change the way universities charge tuition. Full-time, in-state Florida undergraduates would pay one flat rate per semester, instead of by the credit hour, in a change that proponents say encourages heftier course loads and a faster path to graduation.
"The more effectively and efficiently a student can move through the university system, the better off that student is going to be," Galvano said Thursday.
The bill would also pull back the curtain on secretive university foundations, opening up some confidential records relating to how these organizations spend state money.
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Also included are programs to help universities recruit "world-class" faculty and enhance the quality of their professional schools and signature degree programs.
Galvano said the state's increased focus on competitiveness is already paying off. This year, the University of Florida was ranked among the nation's top 10 public universities by U.S. News & World Report.
This bill may succeed where last year's failed. After Gov. Rick Scott vetoed its predecessor in June, objecting to limitations it set on state colleges, senators placed those proposals in a separate bill advanced by Sen. Dorothy Hukill.
Meanwhile, Negron called House Speaker Richard Corcoran a "strong ally" on making universities "top-notch" and said he's optimistic the House will take up the bill soon. He said the governor, too, supports the mission.
Despite the bill's success Thursday, its focus on merit aid has drawn critics who say the state should prioritize needier students — especially considering a recession-era change that raised the bar for Bright Futures eligibility, disproportionately cutting out underrepresented students.
"The students who have been excluded based on eligibility are the students who would probably need help more than those other students," Sen. Perry Thurson said Thursday.
Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said middle-class students who just miss the program's cutoff may end up with a life-altering financial load.
"The folks who can least afford to carry debt end up carrying debt, even if their grade point average is just a little off from getting a full ride," she said.
The Legislature gave need-based aid a historic boost last year, Galvano noted. This year's bill includes another need-based increase, albeit a much smaller one, including for first-generation college students and farm workers and their children.
In recent years, top Bright Futures students have received about half of the average yearly in-state tuition cost of about $6,100. The next tier got about a third of tuition.
Strapped for cash during the recession years, state leaders had slashed the booming program, reducing both award packages and the pool of eligible students. Last year, lawmakers boosted the top-level awards, but it was a one-year-only addition to the budget.
SB 4 seeks to restore Bright Futures to its original award levels — permanently.
"This is going to bring stability to the university system," said Sen. Keith Perry.
Contact Claire McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org and Emily Mahoney at email@example.com.