Sunday, January 21, 2018
Education

Will Florida bring back full tuition breaks for college? State senators weigh in today

A bill that would permanently expand state financial aid for tens of thousands of Florida college students faces a key vote today in the state Senate.

The "Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act of 2018," also known as Senate Bill 4, recently sailed through three committees without a single "no" vote and is expected to pass on the Senate floor. It is a high priority for Senate President Joe Negron and was introduced by Sen. Bill Galvano, likely Negron’s successor as president after the 2018 election.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Higher education reforms — including Bright Futures — remain top Senate priority

The measure still would have to be approved by the House, where it is scheduled to be heard by three committees.

It would expand the Bright Futures Scholarship Program by awarding top-tier students, known as "Academic Scholars," full tuition and most fees at a public college or university in Florida, plus $300 every semester for textbooks. It also would boost the award to the second tier of students, the Florida Medallion Scholars, to cover 75 percent of tuition plus most fees. Students in both tiers would be able to use the money for summer classes.

Bright Futures recipients who attend private colleges in the state receive a comparable amount based on a formula.

The increases, which affect about 100,000 students, would officially restore the awards to where they were before the effects of the recession prompted cutbacks in 2009. They were put in place during last year’s legislative session to cover students for the 2017-18 academic year, but that was a one-year-only addition to the state budget. The new legislation makes the higher awards permanent, giving Florida families better information as they make long-term financial plans for college.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Questions about equity persist as a proposed boost in Bright Futures aims to help top grads

In addition to bolstering Bright Futures, SB 4 would expand aid for other student groups, including out-of-state National Merit Finalists, students who are the first in their families to attend college, and farm workers and their children.

The measure also includes other provisions to bolster higher education, including establishment of a program to help state universities recruit top-flight faculty and adopting a four-year graduation rate instead of the current six-year rate to measure success.

Contact Thomas C. Tobin at tobin@tampabay.com Follow @ThomasCTobin.

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