In a sudden shift, the chair of the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee is now proposing that the state’s smallest universities be absorbed into the flagship University of Florida.
Rep. Randy Fine filed a proposed committee substitute Friday to HB 7087 that substantially changes the controversial plan that has rankled the higher education system during the closing weeks of the 2020 Legislative Session.
The new legislation gives Florida Polytechnic University and New College to the University of Florida and removes the provisions regarding EASE and ABLE. That means those programs giving students non needs-based scholarships to go to private colleges will not be cut. Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida had estimated 63% of the 43,000 students receiving EASE grants would lose their scholarships.
The original version of Fine’s legislation would have consolidated New College into Florida State University and folded Florida Polytechnic University into UF. It would have also made the Effective Access To Student Education grant program, or EASE, and Access to Better Learning and Education Grant program, or ABLE, means-tested.
Fine says he made the change to consolidate both schools with UF after discussions with UF, FSU and the University of South Florida. Both New College and Florida Poly have been part of USF before. New College, founded as a private school, was brought into Florida’s university system in 1975 as part of USF and remained until becoming independent in 2001. Florida Poly started as a USF satellite campus before gaining its independence in 2012.
“UF is closer than FSU to New College,” he said. “Two, UF is the highest ranked and then third there would be more cost efficiencies if both go to one than split them up.”
Both Florida Poly and New College are fiercely opposed to merging into one of the state’s flagship institutions. Florida Polytechnic President Randy Avent testified in opposition of the previous version of the bill. New College President Donal O’Shea was in Tallahassee earlier this week lobbying lawmakers against the plan.
Fine would not say if UF has said it wants the schools.
When asked where the constituency was for merging the schools, Fine pointed to the House Education Committee, which passed the original language by a 12-6 vote. When pressed if there was support outside of the Capitol, Fine said he has received emails from people who “support many parts of the bill.”
Congressman Matt Gaetz added his voice to the controversy by quote-tweeting a tweet from state Rep. Anna Eskamani saying her colleagues should slow down on their consolidation efforts and listen to feedback from students and faculty members. Gaetz says Florida Poly should never have been created and that it was a boondoggle created to satisfy a powerful legislator. He’s referring to former Sen. J.D. Alexander, who lobbied hard for Florida Poly’s creation.
“My dear friend @richardcorcoran knows this to be true because he (almost) helped me in efforts to stop it,” Gaetz went on to name-check Education Commissioner Corcorcan.
Fine says removing the requirement that EASE and ABLE programs become means-tested financial aid was a result of discussions with members of the House and the Senate. The language was a non-starter in the Senate.
“We’re very comfortable with the EASE and ABLE program as it’s currently constituted,” Sen. Rob Bradley said.
But Senate President Bill Galvano has thrown his support behind a consolidation plan for New College, although he cautioned that he hasn’t made a final decision yet.
“The merger is one opportunity that could exist that needs to be discussed,” he said.
The new legislation keeps the original changes to Florida’s “Bright Futures” merit-based college scholarships. It rolls back the $300 a student stipend for textbooks to students receiving the top “Academic” scholarship.
It also keeps in place an expansion to the Florida Medallion Scholars award. Those recipients would receive a full ride beginning in Fall 2021 if they are enrolled in an associate degree program at a Florida College System institution. If they graduate with their associate degree with a 3.5 GPA or better, students could then transfer the scholarship to a four-year state college. Under the state’s current system, the second-tier “Medallion” only covers 75% of tuition.