Two bills that would increase Bright Future scholarship benefits and rework how colleges and universities measure progress and deal with top professors sailed through the Florida Senate Education Committee Monday.
Senate Bills 2 and 4, both introduced by Sen. Bill Galvano, drew some concerns about how they might affect nontraditional and working students but little opposition, as Galvano assured committee members, he shared and would be addressing those concerns.
“The thrust of this bill is not to somehow put additional pressure on a student, or mess with the opportunities they have by putting additional requirements on what the students achieve,” Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, said of SB 2, which took up the bulk of the committee’s discussion and drew the most concern. “The thrust of this bill is to make sure the institutions that they attend are achieving the highest levels of excellence. and within the definition of excellence is the ability to attend and achieve regardless of your financial background.”
That bill would do several things, most notably:
— Re-establish the Bright Futures Academic Scholars Awards to a level that would pay 100 percent of tuition and certain fees;
— Expand eligibility to the Benacquisto Scholarship Program for eligible out-of-state students;
— Double the state match to the First Generation (in college) Matching Grant Program to two dollars for every dollar the student pays;
— Strengthen the program that has two-year state colleges sign automatic matriculation programs with four-year universities; and,
— Modify the state accountability metrics and standards to reward universities for getting more students to graduate in four years.
That latter point was the only one drawing much concern. Galvano’s overall intention was to encourage students to not waste time in graduating, which could run up additional student debts and cost additional money. And no one on the committee seemed to have a problem with that.
But several public speakers and committee members, notably Democrats Gary Farmer and Perry Thurston Jr. and Republican Tom Lee, raised concerns about unintended consequences of pressuring the schools — with funding formulas — to push for four-year graduations. That, they argued, could lead the schools to start reducing opportunities to nontraditional students, many of whom are lower-income, and can only attend while working at the same time, or must take semesters or years off to earn money.
“It’s a pipe dream that they could ever finish college in four years,” said Lee, of Brandon.
Thurston, of Fort Lauderdale, cautioned that some schools such as Florida A&M University specialize in such nontraditional students, and those schools could be hurt for doing so.
Galvano assured he would work with them to prevent those concerns from playing out.
Farmer, of Fort Lauderdale, said he appreciated and accepted Galvano’s intentions.
“There are so many great things in this bill I will be ultimately voting for this bill today,” Farmer said. “I share the goal of making our university system a great university system …. We’re tired of hearing people talking about North Carolina or Virginia or Michigan, and Florida should be mentioned right up there with them, and Florida State.”
The companion measure, SB 4, would create a program for universities to identify, hire and retain star faculty members, and establishes programs to improve quality and prominence of graduate programs including those for medicine, law and business. It drew little discussion before being approved.