A far-reaching proposal that includes merging universities was backed by a House committee on Wednesday, following emotional testimony from students and leaders at public and private colleges who oppose the measure.
In addition to the mergers, the bill would revise the rules of three college scholarship programs, which led two Republicans on the House Education Committee to say the proposed changes felt “rushed” and inconsistent with the state’s school-choice philosophy.
“I feel that if all the provisions of this bill become law, we will be in jeopardy of maintaining our status as the number-one higher education system in the country,” Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, said.
But Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican who is sponsoring the bill (PCB EDC 20-03), argued it is designed to save the state “tens of millions of dollars,” savings that he later suggested could be used to expand other education programs or pay for water projects or health-care services.
The bill would merge New College of Florida into Florida State University and fold Florida Polytechnic University into the University of Florida.
Fine said officials at Florida State and the University of Florida are “well-versed on the (consolidation) plans,” but admitted he did not warn leaders at New College or Florida Polytechnic that a bill would be coming.
Florida State and University of Florida officials did not testify in the committee, but leaders of New College and Florida Polytechnic urged the House panel to vote against the measure, adding that they were caught off guard by the bill.
“We found out about it on the news yesterday (Tuesday). We had no idea it was coming,” Robert Stork, a member of Florida Polytechnic’s board of trustees, testified Wednesday.
While plans to consolidate the universities raised eyebrows in and out of the committee room, much of the pushback on the bill was directed at changes to college scholarship programs.
One of the proposed changes would be to the Bright Futures scholarship program’s Medallion-level scholarships. Fine said the change is meant to nudge more students to attend state colleges before enrolling in universities.
Currently, the Medallion scholarship pays 75 percent of tuition and fees. The bill would expand that to cover 100 percent of tuition for students enrolled in associate degree programs at state colleges.
“We are offering 40,000 children and young adults the pathway to get 100 percent aid for a college degree. They don’t have that today,” Fine said.
But the changes proposed for two private-college scholarships riled up people the most.
Fine said the bill would turn the Effective Access to Student Education, or EASE, and the Access to Better Learning and Education, or ABLE, programs into need-based scholarships, in part to stop “subsidizing wealthy kids to go to private college.”
The change would require students to qualify for Pell grants and demonstrate financial need before they could be eligible to receive awards under the programs.
The move would disqualify roughly 65 percent of students who currently receive awards under the EASE program, said Bob Boyd, the president and CEO of the Independent Colleges & Universities of Florida. He said that would translate to more than 27,000 students.
The EASE program, which was long known as the Florida Resident Access Grant program, awarded grants to 45,803 students during the 2018-2019 school year, with average awards of $2,992.68, according to a House staff analysis..
Brenda Guess, a 41-year-old sophomore at Keiser University’s Sarasota campus, said she would be one of the students who would no longer qualify under the proposed changes.
In tears, she testified she does not qualify for a Pell Grant even though her husband works two jobs to help her pay for a degree in radiologic technology at the private school.
“There’s a gap for students like me,” Guess said. “I hope that I can put a face to the people who will be affected by this.”
A number of Republicans in the committee raised concerns about the cuts to the EASE program and threatened to vote against the bill in the future if the provision remains when the measure gets to the House floor.
Some of them argued cutting the program would be a blow to school choice.
“We’ve worked hard in this Legislature to provide choice for people, and we’re slowly working hard to increase that choice regardless of income because we believe our citizens should be able to choose the type of school and education they desire to do,” Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, said.
He said slashing the program would eliminate choices for middle-income students and other students who currently qualify.
Mariano agreed, saying the proposed changes to the program would be “devastating” to thousands of students who choose to go to private colleges.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told reporters he doesn’t go along with the House on the changes proposed for the private college scholarships, particularly the EASE program.
“I have found those programs valuable, and ultimately they save money for the state,” Galvano said.
The Education Committee voted 12-6 to approve the bill. The next stop for the measure likely will be the Appropriations Committee, where it could be heard as early as next week.