The Senate Education Committee unanimously passed a higher-education package Monday, that would lead to wide-ranging changes in the state’s higher-education system.
The two bills, SB 2 and SB 4, were filed by Senator Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. SB 2 includes an expansion of Bright Futures scholarships, block tuition for universities and stronger requirements for students to graduate on time. SB 4 includes a program to attract high-quality faculty.
Both bills still have to pass through the Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and the Appropriations Committee. From there, they can be considered by the Florida Senate.
Neither bill has a companion bill in the Florida House of Representatives, which is required for them to make it to the Governor’s desk. Katie Betta, spokesperson for Senate President Joe Negron, said talks are underway to generate similar bills in the House.
“The Senate President is hopeful that the bills will ultimately have companions,” Betta said.
“This Act accomplishes the goal of making accessible a quality higher education for all students regardless of their economic background,” Galvano said in the Senate Education Committee meeting Monday.
One provision in SB 2 would require universities to adopt a block tuition policy for some undergraduate students or undergraduate-level courses. Universities would charge for a certain number of credits, allowing students to take more credits without any extra charges.
This bill may mean the end of requiring The Good Life at UF. Currently, UF and FSU are allowed to require up to six credits of required, university-specific courses for all students. Under SB 2, they would no longer have that authority, Betta said
The bill would also expand the highest level of the Bright Futures scholarship to cover 100% of tuition as well as provide a $300 stipend for textbooks. It currently covers 60%. The scholarship would also begin to cover summer sessions. Betta expects the expansion to cost $126 million.
A provision is included in the bill to double the amount the state contributes to the First Generation Matching Grant Program, Betta said. The program currently matches dollar for dollar everything put away for college by families. This would increase that to $2 for every dollar. Betta estimated it would cost an extra $5.3 million.
SB 2 would also change the way university performance is judged. Currently, universities are judged based on the rate of students graduating in six years or less. Instead, universities would be evaluated on students graduating in four years or less.
“What the president and his team saw when they toured the state this summer is that many students end up on this longer trajectory and not getting a different or better or higher degree, but incurring significantly more expense,” Galvano said. “Also you have the consequential impact of time spent out of the work force”
However, state college officials questioned the proposal to hold Florida’ 28 schools to a new evaluation measured based on how many students finish their degrees “on time”.
A Senate analysis of data on students who started attending state colleges in 2009 showed only 4 percent finished their degrees in four years at either a state college or a state university. The four-year graduation rate ranged from zero percent at Florida Keys Community College to about 13 percent at Santa Fe College, according to the Senate analysis.
The analysis found that about 44 percent of university students finish their degrees in four years.
SB 4 would establish the World Class Faculty and Scholar Program to improve recruitment of high-quality faculty for the state university system. The bill’s text says it “authorize(s) investments in certain faculty retention, recruitment and recognition activities.”
Universities may implement this extra funding in many different ways, according to Betta.
“They can make investments in a specific faculty member or recruit a cluster of faculty,” she said. “I believe UF recruited a cluster of research faculty from Clemson a while ago. This would allow universities to make more hiring decisions like that.”
An analysis of SB 4 prepared by the Professional Staff of the Committee on Education said, it will be critical for state universities to “recruit talented faculty and researchers, make strategic investments in research infrastructure, and connect university research with economic development.”
Having a renowned professor or a group of renowned researchers means universities can apply for more research grants, Betta said. It also allows them to apply for more general funding.
“This is in an effort to make the state university system grow in national prominence,” she said.
The total costs of these two bills depends on funding in the General Appropriations Act, Betta said. That’s the act that determines how the budget is spent for the year.
If passed by the House, the Senate and the Governor, both bills would take effect July 1 of this year.