TALLAHASSEE — A Florida House committee on Monday endorsed its version of a higher-education reform bill, including expanding Bright Futures scholarships and requiring state universities to begin using "block" tuition.
The bill (HB 3), sponsored by Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, is the House's answer to Senate President Joe Negron's effort (SB 2) to elevate Florida's higher-education system by increasing scholarship opportunities, tightening performance standards for state colleges and universities and encouraging more students to graduate on time. The Senate bill passed 35-1 in the first week of the legislative session.
The House and Senate bills are similar, but the House is taking a different direction on a number of issues.
Both bills would expand the top-level Bright Futures award for "academic scholars" to cover full tuition and fees for those students who qualify for the merit-based aid. It would also provide $300 for the fall and spring semesters for textbooks and other costs.
The Senate would expand the scholarship for "academic scholars" to the summer semester, while Avila said the House wants to expand summer support to all Bright Future recipients, including "medallion scholars"” and "gold seal vocational scholars."
While agreeing with the Senate that the 12 state universities should have block tuition in place by the fall of 2018, the House would require "at a minimum" that the plans allow students to pay no tuition or fees for classes exceeding 15 credit hours per semester. The other details of the tuition plan, which would replace the current per-credit hour charge with a flat per-semester fee, would have to be worked out by the individual universities.
The House bill, which was approved in an 11-3 vote by the Post-Secondary Education Subcommittee, would be a little more lenient in its graduation-rate performance standards for state colleges and universities.
The House would measure state colleges by graduating full-time students who finish their degrees or certificate programs within 150 percent of the normal completion time, which would be three years for a two-year associate degree. The colleges would get extra credit for students who complete their programs within 100 percent of the normal time, which is closer to the Senate standard.
The Senate wants to measure university undergraduate programs on a four-year graduation basis. The House also would use a four-year measure, but would add a six-year measure with weighting for four-year graduations.
The House bill leaves out several programs in the Senate legislation, including a plan to reward top-performing graduate programs, a scholarship program for students from farmworker families and a plan to expand a tuition-free program for national merit scholars to out-of-state students.
The House bill includes a program to attract top-level faculty and would double a state matching grant for "first-generation" students, which are both in the Senate bill.
David Armstrong, president of Broward College, which last week was named a runner-up for a national award recognizing top-performing community colleges, urged the House committee and lawmakers to proceed cautiously on the changes.
"One of the frustrating and challenging things for us in education at any level is when law or policies or funding formulas, no matter how good they are, keep changing on us," Armstrong said.
He also said the 150 percent graduation measure was more realistic for the state colleges, where a majority of students attend part time.
Armstrong questioned another provision in the House bill that would measure colleges based on their completion of two-year associate degrees but then hold the colleges accountable for their students finishing four-year degrees at state universities.
"We do not have control over them," Armstrong said, referring to the college students who move to university campuses.
Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, voted against the bill, saying "this proposal in many respects will have a negative impact on Florida A&M University."
FAMU could be financially penalized under the Senate and House bill provisions related to graduating students within four years. Based on the students who graduated in 2015, only 13.4 percent of FAMU's students met that standard, which was the lowest in the 12-university system.
Noting the majority of FAMU students are receiving need-based financial aid and some have to work to stay in school, Alexander said "the one-size-fits-all approach" will hurt some schools.
"We're picking winners and we're picking losers," he said. "I have a problem with that."