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Plan To Merge Florida Universities Advances

Feb 13, 2020
Originally published on February 13, 2020 1:59 pm

The House Education committee is considering a plan to merge Florida Polytechnic University with the University of Florida, and New College of Florida with Florida State University. The proposal was filed Monday and is being met with  mixed reactions.

Palm Bay Rep. Randy Fine says despite what some people might think, the idea to merge the schools didn’t come out of thin air.

“This PCB is a culmination of months of work by the committee that I run, the House Higher Education Appropriations subcommittee, who spent months looking into the efficiency of financial aid, of our universities, and our Bright Futures Program," Fine said.

Included in the the legislation is a revamp of the  Bright Futures Program which provides scholarships for students.  Right now, high schoolers who earn a 3.0 to 3.5 GPA have 75% of their first two years of higher education paid for, whether it’s at a university or college. Fine says, economically, that makes no sense.

“Seventy-five percent of a state university is worth way more than 75% of a state college. And so people go 'hey, I want to get a bigger value than a smaller value'. And so, 75% of the people who have this choice choose to go to a university."

Fine’s bill would change it so that the value matches the reward.

"For those medallion scholars, you can continue if you so choose to get 75% of your tuition paid at any of our 12 or 10 state universities, or you can get 100% of your tuition paid for at a state college," he said.

There are 12 public universities in Florida. Fine's comment about 10 is not a misspeak. His proposal also floats a plan to merge two universities into two others. Specifically, Florida Polytechnic University and New College of Florida would no longer be stand-alone schools. 

"It would require that Florida Polytechnic University and New College of Florida be merged into the University of Florida and Florida State," Fine said, citing concerns with the the schools' cost. 

"In addition to whatever tuition a student is paying on average the state, we the taxpayer, our constituents pay $28,208 per degree that is issued," Fine said. "But not at New College. At New College, we spend $197,681 per degree--seven times as much."

At Polytech, tuition costs tax payers a few thousand less than at New College.

Bob Stork, a board of trustee member at Polytech defended the school, telling the House committee Polytech's costs are higher because their students do better.

"We had a big impact study done...and Florida Poly graduates can expect a return on their investment, an ROI, of three times better than the average university state system," Stork said.

But the biggest concerns come from people worried about another change Fine’s legislation would make--changing one of the state's scholarship programs so that awards would be based upon need. 

Currently to receive the scholarship a student must be enrolled as an undergraduate at a private institution in Florida and have at least a 2.0 GPA. Fine thinks it should be limited to those who are financially needy.

"We’re turning it into a need-based program as opposed to an entitlement program where, whether you’re low-income and need it, or a billionaire, you’re entitled to it," Fine said.

The change would disqualify between 50% and 60% of those who currently get the scholarship.

"Two-hundred and twenty hours a year in order to make the $2,841 a year currently afforded to me by EASE. I would have to work an additional 110 hours per semester to cover my tuitions cost. That’s 110 hours not studying, volunteering, participating in extracurricular activities or contributing to the community as a whole," said Sam Mule, a student at Flagler College, a private school. 

Karl Willet earned an Associate’s Degree at Keiser in Jacksonville. He told committee members he wouldn’t have been able to go to school at all without the money.

“If it wasn’t for it, [I] wouldn’t have been able to go to school. Period. That means that I wouldn’t have been able to get the 10 certifications in I.T. I have today," Willet said.

After public testimony many legislators spoke against the thought of leaving more than 50% of students that receive the grant high and dry. But Fine says hard choices is what he was hired to make.

“There’s no one who’s going to stand up here and say, 'Hey it’s great to take away people’s scholarships or it’s great to close a university," Fine said. "That doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing. I was asked to do this job because I have no fealty to any of these schools. My goal is to provide the best higher education we can at the lowest possible cost. Because if this bill goes into effect as designed tens of millions of dollars will be available. We could increase the size of the EASE and ABLE grant."

The bill passed the committee and Senate President Bill Galvano is already weighing in. He says he has a different view on what’s done with the EASE grant.

"As you know I chaired Ed Approps for a chunk of my senate career and have found those programs valuable and they ultimately save money for the state. Yes, it will be part of our overall discussion but we have a different view," Galvano said.

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