In a dramatic shift from last year, significant legislation addresses improvements in higher education in an effort to elevate Florida’s university and college systems into greaternational and world prominence. Last year lawmakers only approved minor matters, but this year’s session promises a sharp focus on a comprehensive higher education agenda — the top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Two bills are already advancing in the state Senate, passing a key committee.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, stands in the center of this commendable shift in priorities by sponsoring those two bills, the Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act (SB 2) and the Recruit and Retain Elite Faculty (SB 4). As the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, Galvano holds considerable influence on this legislation.
Both measures won stamps of approval from the Senate Education Committee this week and only face two more stops, one in Galvano’s committee and the other in Appropriations, where Galvano also serves.
Most substantial to students and parents, SB 2 aims to make higher education more affordable via a number of measures
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Most substantial to students and parents, SB 2 aims to make higher education more affordable via a number of measures, including an expansion of financial assistance for students to promote on-time graduation, thus propelling them into the workforce and opening a slot for another student. The goal, Galvano noted in a statement, is to improve the state’s four-year graduation rate by increasing need- and merit-based financial assistance.
The bill reinstates the highest Bright Futures Scholarship Program Award to cover 100 percent of tuition and some fees and gives students $300 for textbooks. It also expands the Benacquisto Scholar Program to grant awards to qualified out-of-state students. Furthermore, the legislation creates tuition and fee incentives for universities to increase student access to higher education.
One incentive would effectively change the tuition landscape. Instead of charging students per credit hour, the schools would be required to adopt block tuition policies — one flat charge to full-time students in the fall and spring. This looks like an effort to promote a full class load for a cost-effective education that graduates students on time, and it’s a disincentive to students who drag out their education with light academic loads semester after semester.
SB 2 also requires every community college to execute at least one 2+2 targeted pathway articulation agreement with a partner university by the 2018-2019 academic year. State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota signed a 2+2 agreement with the University of South Florida system last fall, a bonus since that includes all three USF campuses. The term 2+2 refers to students graduating community college in two years with an associates degree and guaranteed admission to a state university and baccalaureate degree program, earning that diploma in another two years. Certain requirements must be met. For students striving to earn college credits in high school, district school boards will be required to advise students and parents about how those credits will apply toward a college degree, sensibility eliminating uncertainty.
Qualifying community college students will not have to worry about entering a university, that burden lifted thanks to this prudent mandate.
Universities would face a stronger accountability measure, one designed to improve on-time graduation and save taxpayer dollars. The incentive is the connection between graduation rate expectations to four years and performance-based funding from the state.
SB 4 will please the best and brightest students by providing greater challenges. The bill establishes a World Class Faculty Scholar Program to fund university endeavors to recruit, recognize and retain illustrious faculty and teams. Another provision establishes a University Professional and Graduate Degree Excellence Program focusing on the high-impact fields of medicine, law and business. Plus, SB 4 includes improvements for aging infrastructure and research laboratories.
For students and parents worried about job opportunities upon graduation, the legislation expands a university’s responsibility to identify internship options whereby students benefit from industry experts and mentors, earn industry certification and become employed in high-demand field left wanting of qualified employees.
The two Senate bills have been a long time in coming. And they are only the beginning, though key components in Negron’s agenda, which is designed to “boost the strength and competitiveness of our state’s high education system as our primary economic engine to drive vibrant, sustainable economic development and growth in high-paying jobs.”
It’s time for game-changing investments and positive policy changes in higher education, and Negron, Galvano and others are on that track.