Florida Senate committee pushes to expand Bright Futures

An additional 44,000 Bright Futures students would have their scholarships expanded under a bill approved Monday by the Senate Education Committee.

The legislation (SB 4), sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, would increase scholarship coverage for “medallion scholars” in state universities from the current $77 per credit hour to $159, or roughly 75 percent of the cost of tuition and fees.

RELATED: More Florida Legislature news

The expansion would also help students at state colleges, increasing the medallion scholars from $63 per credit hour to $80 for students seeking associate degrees and from $53 per credit hour to $92 for students taking upper division courses at the colleges.

The scholarship expansion, which will require an estimated $77 million in state funding, is part of a bill that revives most of the major provisions of higher-education legislation (SB 374) passed by the Legislature last spring but vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Another provision in the bill would make permanent the expansion of Bright Futures scholarships to cover full tuition and fees for “academic scholars,” the highest level of the program. That part of the program includes some 50,000 students, mostly at state universities.

The academic scholars expansion was included in this year’s state budget, although its future is in doubt without the passage of a bill that would place it into more-permanent law.

The “Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act” is also a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

In a statement, Negron said students and their families “deserve financial security and peace of mind throughout their academic journey.”

“With these permanent changes in law, we can help alleviate some of those financial concerns,” he said.

The legislation also would expand need-based aid programs, including doubling the state match for the “first generation” in college scholarship program. Under the current 1-to-1 match for private donations, the program provided an average scholarship of $1,270 for 8,361 students in the 2016-17 academic year.

With the proposed 2-to-1 match, the aim is to extend the program for some of the 15,442 students who qualified for the grants but received no funding.

Other major provisions in the bill include a requirement that state universities develop block tuition plans by the fall of 2018. Under such plans, students would pay a flat rate per semester, rather than paying for classes on a per credit-hour basis. Block tuition is expected to provide a financial incentive for students to take more classes and graduate more quickly.

The legislation would require the state university system to use a four-year graduation rate as part of its performance-funding formula, instead of the current six-year measure.

Schools seeking a “pre-eminent” university status would have to have at least a 60 percent four-year graduation rate, although the metric would be phased in over the next year.

A key difference in the new bill from the prior legislation is that it does not contain many provisions related to the state college system.

Senate Education Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, said she will file a separate bill on the 28-school state college system in the next few weeks. Hukill said the legislation will contain a college system oversight board, similar to the Board of Governors’ supervision of the state universities.

Currently, the college system is under the state Board of Education, which also oversees the pre-kindergarten-through-high-school system.

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