Senate pitches major higher education changes

TALLAHASSEE —The Florida Senate on Wednesday released a wide-ranging plan to reshape higher education in the state, including an expansion of Bright Futures scholarships, block tuition for universities, stronger requirements for students to graduate on time and a program to attract high-quality faculty.

The bills (SB 2 and SB 4) embody initiatives advanced by Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who toured all 12 Florida university campuses in the spring.

Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee on higher education, will take the lead on the legislation. Galvano said the bills “will elevate the prominence of our state universities and increase their ability to compete as national destination institutions, while preserving access and increasing affordability for Floridians.”

The Senate released the plan a day after Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a series of proposals aimed primarily at holding down the costs of higher education. Scott’s proposals include capping student fees, eliminating sales taxes on textbook purchases and extending Bright Futures scholarships to summer classes.

One major element of the Senate initiative is an emphasis on scholarships and student aid, with Negron saying every student should “have the opportunity to obtain a higher education, regardless of their economic circumstances.”

The legislation would increase the top-level award for the merit-based Bright Futures scholarships to cover all tuition and fees and provide a $300 per semester stipend for books. The “academic scholars” program now only covers half of the tuition and fees, which average about $200 per credit hour across the system.

Negron’s plan would also allow the top-level Bright Futures recipients to use their scholarships for summer classes, which is similar to a proposal by Scott, though the governor wants to expand the summer provision to all levels of the Bright Futures program.

The Senate’s Bright Futures changes would cost an estimated $151 million.

Another provision would extend what is known as the “Benacquisto Scholar Program” to out-of-state students who qualify as National Merit Scholars to attend Florida universities. Currently, the program, which pays full tuition, only applies to in-state residents.

On need-based aid, Negron’s plan would double state funding for a matching grant program aimed at first-generation students attending universities or state colleges.

How students pay for their university education could be impacted by another provision that would mandate the 12 universities and the Board of Governors, which oversees the system, develop a “block” tuition plan.

The tuition plan would be in place for the fall 2018 classes.

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