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Stakeholders voice opposition to university merger plan and EASE scholarships change

Critics say 63% of EASE scholarship recipients will lose their tuition subsidies.

Advocates of a private college and university scholarship program are voicing concern about a proposed House plan to turn tuition subsidies into need-based financial aid.

The House Education Committee is set to consider a proposal (PCB EDC 20-03) Wednesday morning that would consolidate Florida’s two smallest public universities into the state’s flagship institutions. That legislation would also turn the Effective Access To Student Education grant program, or EASE, from non needs-based scholarships to aid for low-income students.

The proposal is being pushed by Higher Education Subcommittee Chair Randy Fine. It would fold Florida Polytech into the University of Florida and New College of Florida into Florida State University. Fine told Florida Politics that the mergers are aimed at reducing the cost of education at state universities.

Former Sen. J.D. Alexander pushed to make the University of South Florida Polytechnic campus in Lakeland into the state’s 12th university. USF supporters who opposed that separation years ago might consider Fine’s bill another slight to the university, which has voiced complaints over continual shifts in funding access based on preeminence and other performance-based efforts.

In a message to the Polytechic community, President Randy Avent said they strongly oppose the “unwarranted” legislation. He pointed to rising applications and enrollment growth. 

We stand behind the fact that we have accomplished, and continue to accomplish, great things as a separate, unique institution within the State University System,” Avent said. “Florida’s future lies in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and Florida Poly offers a core STEM education available nowhere else in our state. 

Groups like the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, an association of private, non-profit educational institutions, are also raising objections to the legislation.  

Bob Boyd, president and CEO of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, said the changes to the EASE program would significantly cut the number of scholarships. He says of the 43,000 students who use the scholarships to attend private schools in the state, 63% of them would lose their grant money.

He argues that this could cost the state more than $380 million if all of those students who lose scholarships to private colleges and universities go to public institutions, not that they necessarily all would.

“Nobody’s looking at the numbers,” he said. It’s going to cost money.”

Fine calls that a “silly hypothetical.”

He also points out he is not proposing to arbitrarily cut scholarships for students. But Fine said it should be only for students who really need the money. 

“It’s not merit based, it’s not means-tested,” he said. “There’s no standards.”

Some critics say this proposal is last minute, coming at the midpoint of the session. But Fine also dismissed that criticism.

“Anyone who has been watching my committee should not be surprised,” he said. “I’ve talked about the cost of Polytechnic, and EASE and ABLE. No one should be surprised.”

Written By

Sarah Mueller has extensive experience covering public policy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010. She began her career covering local government in Texas, Georgia and Colorado. She returned to school in 2016 to earn a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting. Since then, she’s worked in public radio covering state politics in Illinois, Florida and Delaware. If you'd like to contact her, send an email to sarah@floridapolitics.com.

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