Legislation consolidating Florida’s two smallest public universities into the state’s flagship institutions and rolling back grant funding prompted tons of questions and debate Wednesday.
The Education Committee voted to advance the bill (PCB EDC 20-03,) drafted by House Higher Education Subcommittee Chair Randy Fine, by a 12-6 vote. Reps. Bruce Antone, Kim Daniels, Elizabeth Fetterhoff, Delores Hogan Johnson, Susan Valdez and Patricia Williams voted no.
Fine’s bill would fold Florida Polytechnic University into the University of Florida and New College of Florida into Florida State University. But most of the push back on the bill came not on those potential mergers, rather from students worried about losing their grants through the Effective Access To Student Education grant program, or EASE, and Access to Better Learning and Education Grant program, or ABLE. Under the legislation, those non-need based grants would become need-based.
The legislation would also give Florida Medallion Scholars a full ride beginning in Fall 2021 if they are enrolled in an associate degree program at a Florida College System institution. As long as they graduated with their associates degree with at least a 3.5 GPA, students could then transfer the scholarship to a four year state college. It also rolls back the $300 cap for textbooks. Under the state’s current system, Florida Medallion only covers 75% of tuition.
Fine acknowledged that more than half of 43,000 students who currently get EASE grants could lose them under his plan. The Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida group estimates that number could be as high as 63%. Fine argues the state should stop funding private college for wealthier students whose incomes exceed federal financial aid criteria.
“It is neither merit based nor is it need-based,” he said. “What we are proposing to do with this program is to make this program need-based.”
Brenda Guess is a student at Keiser University. She became emotional and took issue with Fine’s characterization of the grant as “free money.”
“When you suggested that this is free money, it affected me,” she said. “My husband currently works two jobs to ensure that I get an education. I don’t qualify for a Pell grant. There’s a gap for students like me. I hope that I can put a face to the people who will be affected by this.”
Some of the committee members like Daniels and Rep. Ralph Massullo said they want to see EASE preserved in the legislation to be able to support it if it reaches a floor vote. Fetterhoff said she couldn’t support the bill because four of 29 schools in her district are members of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida group.
Fine said saving money is the main driver behind the decision to consolidate the cost of degrees, which he says are unacceptably high at Florida Poly and New College. It costs more than $180,000 per student to graduate at Florida Poly and nearly $200,000 at New College. Costs are just $31,598 at UF and $36,857 at FSU. He said the small universities were unaware the proposal was coming. An amendment requires the mergers to happen this year instead of next year.
FSU President John Thrasher, who was at the Capitol, but did not attend the hearing, said he hasn’t had time to evaluate the proposal.
“I’ll let the wisdom of the legislature decide that,” he said.
Florida Polytechnic President Randy Avent said Science, Technical, Engineering and Mathematical (STEM) degrees are more expensive than other types of degrees at the other universities. He said that apples-to-apples, the cost of getting an engineering degree at his school is fairly similar to UF.
“The real issue is the cost to the state,” he said. “I think that if you wanted to make Florida Poly inexpensive then we could change all the STEM degrees and offer social programs, sociology, psychology. But I think that gets around the whole mission of the university.”
Fine said he looks heartless because he’s put forward this bill and maybe he is. But he believes his measure would provide the best higher education to students at the lowest cost.
The bill appears to have the support of House Speaker Jose Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano is indicating he is open to considering it.
“I don’t see it as a take-it-or-leave-it issue,” he said. “I genuinely think that these discussions have been around for a while. Both those universities started out as University of South Florida, and so these types of discussions are healthy from time to time.”