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Scott: Florida should cap fees at colleges and universities, loosen rules on Bright Futures

Photo illustration. [istock]
Photo illustration. [istock]
Published Jan. 11, 2017

TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott envisions an easier way for Florida students to get a college degree — and, critically, a job — without an avalanche of debt.

Dubbing his new higher education agenda "Finish in Four, Save More," Scott outlined his pitch Tuesday for more affordable degrees and a quicker path to graduation.

He wants to freeze all fees at state colleges and universities and broaden Bright Futures scholarships to cover summer classes. He wants to eliminate sales taxes on required textbooks and cap tuition at state colleges, an expansion of his successful push to limit tuition increases at state universities.

"As I travel the state, people tell me they want a job, they want to work," he said. "They want their kids to get a good education, because they know that's their chance to live their dream in this country. It's all tied to education. But if you can't afford it, it doesn't do anything for you."

On Tuesday, flanked by USAA insurance interns dressed in red-and-blue polos, Scott lamented how college costs have risen.

"At the junior college I went to, the first year it was $200, all-in, a semester," he said. "And the university, which was expensive, was $255."

Students at Florida's public universities now pay about $200 per credit hour. Half of that amount can be chalked up to fees for services such as technology, transportation and health expenses. At state colleges, fees average more than $26 per credit hour.

"We've got to control that for our students," Scott said.

He also proposed lowering the fees of graduate teaching assistants by 25 percent to reduce their financial burden.

Scott sees an expansion of Bright Futures as a way to boost flexibility for students who have been reluctant to take summer classes that their scholarship won't cover. Currently, the merit-based program only covers fall and spring semesters.

"It will help individuals keep their costs down and get out of school faster," Scott said.

He estimates that his proposal to cut textbook taxes will save students $48 million. A student with an average course load will save at least $60 per year, he said.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he thinks the proposals will align well with those of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who has big plans for Florida higher education.

Negron outlined his priorities when he took office in November, ticking off goals related to college affordability, four-year graduation rates, aging infrastructure, professional schools and more. He champions a plan to have Bright Futures cover the full cost of tuition for certain top students, called "academic scholars." Summer funding, with an estimated cost of $34.4 million, may have to compete with Negron's plan.

"The president has had many conversations with the governor on higher education over the last few years and they share many common goals, particularly increasing affordability for Florida students and elevating the national reputation of Florida's universities," a statement from Negron's office said Tuesday.

Lee, a member of the Senate's subcommittee on higher education appropriations, supports the summer expansion plan.

"It's pretty hard to get out of school in four years just going in the spring and the fall," Lee said. "It's never been fundamentally fair that we did not allow Bright Futures to apply to summer classes in the first place."

The scholarship program dates back to 1997 and offers average scholarships of $2,300, but top achievers can receive more. Qualifying students graduate from Florida high schools with a minimum 3.0 GPA, and a score of at least 1,170 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT.

Freshman Rep. Amber Mariano, R-New Port Richey, has filed a bill pushing for Bright Futures to cover summer tuition.

A student at the University of Central Florida, Mariano once had to pay $3,000 for three online classes during the summer — a bill she said felt like a punishment for trying to accelerate her path to graduation.

"Students work so hard to reach that goal (of Bright Futures), and once they get there they get punished for trying to take summer classes," Mariano said. "Why would we limit them?"

Just 44 percent of undergraduates at Florida state universities graduate in four years, Scott said with disappointment Tuesday. Seventy-one percent graduate in six years.

The Board of Governors has set a goal of 50 percent graduating in four years by 2025.

Scott said he wants every student in Florida to be able to graduate debt-free, like he did.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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