By LLOYD DUNKELBERGER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 1, 2017……… Although he has three degrees, including a law degree from Emory University and a master’s from Harvard, Senate President Joe Negron went back to college last spring.
It was a unique journey for an incoming legislative leader that took Negron on a tour of Florida’s 12 public universities, from the University of West Florida at the western edge of the Panhandle to Florida International University in the urban center of Miami-Dade County.
Negron’s trip, which included talking with students, professors and administrators, helped him form the basis of an ambitious plan for the 2017 legislative session to elevate Florida’s higher-education system.
His legislative thesis is straight-forward: He believes Florida, as the nation’s third-largest state, should have some of the best public universities in the country, on par with institutions like the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia.
Negron, R-Stuart, wants to substantially boost university funding while also holding schools to higher performance standards, including having more undergraduates finish in four years.
He also wants to offer more financial support and incentives to students, including expanding the Bright Futures merit scholarship program and providing more aid to low-income students.
Key elements of Negron’s plan are in line with Gov. Rick Scott, who also supports expanding Bright Futures, using measurement standards and making higher education more affordable.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, said he is open to ideas like expanding Bright Futures and other higher-education initiatives “that transform and make Floridians’ lives better.”
The biggest unknown is the state budget, with the expectation that lawmakers will have to balance their legislative priorities against an austere spending plan.
But Negron, a veteran lawmaker who has chaired budget committees in the House and Senate, said over time the higher-education initiative “and targeted financial investments in faculty and infrastructure will enhance the national reputation of Florida’s state university system.”
Here are major higher-education initiatives that will be considered during the legislative session that starts Tuesday:
— BRIGHT FUTURES: Negron would expand the top-level award for “academic scholars” to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees. It currently covers about half of the cost, which averages around $200 per credit hour. Negron would also provide $300 per semester for books.
The Senate plan (SB 2) also would expand Bright Futures for academic scholars to the summer semester. Scott wants to expand all Bright Future scholarships, including medallion students, to the summer semester. Scott also wants to boost the award for academic scholars by 10 percent.
— OTHER SCHOLARSHIPS: The Senate would double the state match for a scholarship program that supports “first generation” in college students. It would also expand to out-of-state students the Benacquisto scholarships, which pay full tuition for National Merit scholars in Florida. Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, also is seeking to provide full scholarships to about 50 students per year from farmworker families.
— BLOCK TUITION: This is an unresolved element in the plan. The legislation would mandate all 12 state universities have block-tuition plans in place by the fall of 2018. Students would pay a flat fee per semester rather than paying for courses on the current credit-hour basis.
Ideally, students could pay the equivalent of 12 credit hours but take up to 15 hours of classes each semester. But if that happens, it could represent a major revenue loss for the universities. The solution will involve finding an incentive for students to take more classes, while keeping the schools financially whole.
— PERFORMANCE STANDARDS: The Senate plan would hold state universities to a four-year graduation standard for undergraduates, rather than the current six years. It would require at least 50 percent of the students seeking baccalaureate degrees finish in four years. Currently nine of the 12 schools don’t meet that standard, with a system-wide average of 44 percent.
The 28 state colleges would be held to a similar standard, although the legislation would give some flexibility in designing the measure, after the colleges argued they serve more non-traditional populations, including part-time students and older students. The bill would also add an “affordability” metric to the college evaluations. The performance standards are important to universities and colleges because state funding can rise or fall depending on the measures.
— ACADEMIC PATHWAYS: The legislation would strengthen the process of students earning two-year, or associate, degrees at state colleges and then moving on to universities to earn bachelor degrees. It would require each college to have an agreement with at least one state university that would allow students who earn associate degrees to move on to a specific school and program, if they meet the required academic standards.
— FACULTY AND GRAD STUDENTS: The bill would create funding pools that would help universities attract top-level faculty and reward outstanding graduate-school programs in fields like medicine, law and engineering. The Senate budget is expected to tentatively have $65 million for the “world class” scholars program and $50 million for graduate programs that meet “excellence” standards.
— STATE COLLEGE BOARD: Another Senate initiative (SB 374) would re-establish a State Board of Community Colleges to oversee the 28 state colleges. Florida previously had a community college board, but it was abolished in 2003 and its oversight duties were given to the State Board of Education, which also oversees the pre-kindergarten-through-high school system. The bill would also cap enrollment in baccalaureate-degree programs at the colleges, although it would allow the caps to be exceeded with legislative approval.
— CONSTRUCTION: State universities and colleges have identified hundreds of millions of dollars in building construction and maintenance needs on their campuses. The state Board of Governors, which oversees the universities, has requested $125 million in primary needs, with a $283.5 million “supplemental” list. In a tight budget year, the key question is whether lawmakers will advance, and Scott will accept, a bonding plan for the Public Education Capital Outlay program. This year, the state had a $625 million PECO program, including $275 million in bonds.
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