House Unveils Answer To Negron's Version Of Higher Ed Reform

Mar 23, 2017
Originally published on March 22, 2017 5:46 pm

The Florida House is promising big cut to higher education funding. And it also has another idea for changes that should be made to the system.  The chamber unveiled its answer to one of Senate President Joe Negron’s top priorities this week.

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Senate President Joe Negron wants to make many changes to the way Florida’s public higher education system operates. That includes increasing the value of the state’s tuition scholarship program, revamping the metrics used to evaluate college and university performance and tweaking how colleges operate. The Senate okayed the plan earlier in session.

Now it’s the House’s turn. And the chamber has a proposal of its own. Instead of just mirroring the Senate plan, Republicans Republican Rep. Brian Avila says his measure offers some alternatives.

It allows all Bright Futures recipients—not just the top tier—to use their scholarships to cover summer classes. And he would also continue to use a six year graduation rate metric in addition to a four-year metric as one of the criteria for judging colleges and universities. That’s important to Representative Ramon Alexander. Florida A&M University is both his alma mater and it’s in his district. Alexander worries the changes could hurt the school, which serves a large number of low income students, and where less than 15 percent of students met that standard in 2015.

“About 90 percent of the students at Florida A&M University are on need based aid. Over 90 percent of the students at University of Florida are on Bright Futures. I keep hearing it will save students money. Yes, on one end. But on the other end, students make determinations based on circumstance. They all aren’t pledging fraternities and drinking beer," he said.

Lawmakers in the House’s Post-Secondary Committee have other concerns. Most center around the issue of block tuition. The Senate wants the state’s universities to establish block tuition policies that would allow students to take more classes for a flat rate. But Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith worries there are some students for whom that would mean they would pay more, for less.

“I’m not clear on how many students would be able to take advantage of the block tuition benefit, because how many students will have the time to take more than 15 hours? I think, not many," he said.

The point of a block tuition policy is to help students get through school faster. On a tour of Florida’s public universities, students repeatedly told Senate President Joe Negron that one of their main obstacles toward graduation was financial. Meanwhile, David Armstrong, President of Broward College, worries about part of the bill that would hold colleges responsible for the performance of their students at universities.

"For us to implement meaningful change, and it involves lots of things outside our control.”

Another key difference between the House and Senate bills, is how they treat low income students. The House measure would reward schools for recruiting and retaining more low-income students, but that’s not a feature of the Senate proposal. The House committee has approved the measure with the majority of members in support. And Avila calls the bill a work in progress. He says the chamber will continue to modify its plan as the bill makes its way through more committees.

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