TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers have reached a compromise on a wide-ranging higher education bill that would create several tuition breaks for college students and would expand on the Legislature’s push to provide coronavirus liability protections.
The legislation, passed unanimously by the Senate on Tuesday, would shield public and private universities from lawsuits seeking tuition and fee reimbursements as a result of pandemic-related school disruptions — and could do away with about 24 lawsuits filed in Florida against higher-education institutions.
Lawmakers have stuffed the bill (HB 1261) with several new tuition breaks — a contrast to agreed cuts to other college financial aid programs this year. The bill, for example, offers in-state tuition to out-of-state students whose grandparents live in Florida, creates a “buy one, get one free” waiver for students who enroll in programs aligned to the state’s economic and workforce needs, and tuition and fee waivers for one online course for certain students, including veterans and active-duty military members.
“This will continue to put us in a great position to lead as our universities out there and state colleges continue to do everything they can to attract the best and brightest,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
All of these provisions approved by the Senate on Tuesday were part of a compromise negotiated by the House and Senate. Gruters said the bill is “done” and does not expect any more changes, as it heads to the House for final passage.
Tying the college experience to jobs
The legislation, Gruters said, will ensure the state is “ready for the jobs that are coming at us.”
The effort is part of a broader push by Republican leaders to put greater emphasis on higher-education through the lens of the state’s workforce needs. During the legislative session, some of the workforce-oriented efforts failed, including a proposal that would have redesigned the state’s popular Bright Futures college scholarship program to tailor award amounts to degrees that lead directly to jobs.
But many other proposals moved forward, including provisions tucked in the higher-education package.
The “BOGO” provision is one example. It would create a “buy one, get one free” tuition and fee waiver that is meant to be an incentive for students to enroll in and graduate from state university baccalaureate degree programs linked to in-demand professions, as determined by the state university system’s Board of Governors.
The tuition break will cost taxpayers $25 million, an expense that House and Senate budget writers have already agreed to incorporate in the budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year.
Lawmakers have also incorporated language in the bill that would require the Board of Governors to develop and publish an online dashboard featuring information about median salaries, average student loan debt and debt-to-income ratio for different types of careers and areas of studies.
The dashboard idea was plucked from legislation that sought to redesign Bright Futures. After fierce opposition, the push for the Bright Futures makeover dwindled, but the dashboard idea gained traction and made it onto the higher-education package.
In addition to the dashboard, each state university board of trustees will be required to adopt procedures to connect undergraduate students to career planning, coaching and related programs during their first academic year. Students’ registrations could be placed on hold if they do not register with the university’s career center, complete a career readiness training, or have not been directed to the information on the dashboard.
The bill would also create the State University Free Seat Program, which would require each state university to waive the tuition and fees for one online course for a Florida resident who is a veteran, an active duty member of the United States Armed Forces, an active drilling member of the Florida National Guard, or a student who has not been enrolled in a post-secondary institution for more than five years.
The tuition break will be a revenue hit to state universities, according to the bill analysis. For each course waived, universities could loose $129.18 to $180 per credit hour. There is no cap on the number of students who can benefit from the tuition waiver.
The bill also includes the so-called “memaw” tuition break. It offers in-state tuition rates to high-performing, out-of-state students whose grandparents live in Florida. The “memaw” provision went through several rewrites during session, and at one point would have only applied to students whose grandparents were veterans.
But lawmakers agreed to broaden it again to offer tuition breaks to out-of-state students whose grandparents are legal residents in Florida. Before waiving fees, state universities would be required to have a student attest to the familial relationship to the grandparents, though they would not be required to independently verify the statements.
The “memaw” tuition discount is capped at 350 students each academic year.
COVID-19 liability protections
In the higher-education bill, House and Senate leaders have agreed to shield public and private universities and colleges from lawsuits that seek tuition or fee reimbursements. The protections would offer no recourse to students who feel they didn’t get the full education experience they anticipated.
“Just because you didn’t have the overall college experience that you normally have, it still doesn’t mean that you should not have to pay tuition,” Gruters said last month, when he first introduced the proposal. “Unfortunately, there’s people that want to do virtual instruction and then don’t want to pay.”
Gruters initially proposed language that would have included fees associated with dorms and meal plans under the protections. But he said he was willing to reconsider the language, and the bill no longer includes protections for lawsuits seeking reimbursements for housing and dining fees.
Sandy Harris, a representative for Nova Southeastern University, a Davie-based private university that is tangled up in a federal suit over tuition and fees, spoke in support of the bill during a committee hearing in March.
“We are simply asking for the support of the Legislature to protect us from these class-action lawsuits,” Harris said.
About 24 lawsuits seeking tuition and fee refunds from higher education institutions have been filed in Florida since the start of the pandemic last March, according to an online tracker from the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.
If signed into law, the proposed liability protections would expand the state’s law that makes it harder to sue healthcare providers, governments and educational institutions for issues related to the pandemic.
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