THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 11, 2011 --
Looking for ways to plug a multi-million higher education budget hole, Florida lawmakers are considering revamping a longtime Florida law that gives free adult education classes to people without a high school degree.
By changing a Florida law that exempts most adult education students from paying a fee and charging a tuition rate of $50 a year, Florida’s colleges could yield up to $16.7 million in new revenue, according to a briefing by the Office of Program Policy and Government Analysis to Senate lawmakers on Friday.
Legislators are mulling over the new fee as they grapple with a potential $3.6 billion budget shortfall. No decisions have been made as to how much might be cut from state funding for colleges and universities.
Gov. Rick Scott has suggested slashing higher education funding by $340 million, which includes some federal stimulus funds.
“We are having to reduce so much we are looking at any possibility for funding sources that could possibly help us still deliver services and not have to cut so severely,” said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, the chair of the Senate committee that writes the higher education budget.
Florida spent $256 million last year on adult education and there are 333,159 students who take these classes.
Typically, these are students who do not have a high school degree or GED certificate and take classes at community colleges and K-12 schools to work toward that degree. It is different from continuing education or workforce training, which targets people who either have a high school degree or a bachelor’s degree already.
Many people taking adult education classes do so to have access to English as a Second Language classes. Some students might even have high school or advanced degrees from another country.
“If you are getting it free, you don’t show up for class because there is no skin in the game,” said Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville. “I think you ought to have some skin in the game and pay some tuition.”
Lawmakers are eyeing the group because of its size. There are 30,000 more people in adult education classes in Florida than students in the entire state university system.
Community colleges are expected to oppose the effort.
“It’s certainly not a good thing because the people who take adult education are the ones that can’t afford to pay for it themselves,” said Michael Brawer, the Chief Executive Officer of the Florida Association of Community Colleges. “If you eliminate state support you will eliminate access for a sector of our population that needs it.”
Charging for adult education classes is just one of several possibilities Florida lawmakers are kicking around to help plug what is expected to be a large hole in higher education funding.
Lawmakers also looked at slashing state grants that help private school students pay for university tuition. The Florida Resident Access Grant, first created by the Florida Legislature in 1979, helps pay a portion of a private school student’s tuition. Last fiscal year, Florida spent $88.8 million on these grants.
To qualify, a student has to be a Florida resident attending a private university or college in the state.
The award is capped at $2,425, though that amount has been cut for the last three years as Florida has struggled to close staggering budget gaps. In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, that amount was capped at $3,000.
“We fight this battle every year and we never know until the budget gets passed what a student will get,” said Ed Moore, the President of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.
This year there were about 35,000 students who received the grants.
Moore said the logic behind the grants to private school students is that the state is paying less than it would for that student to go through the public university system.
“You are spending taxpayer dollars on taxpaying citizens,” Moore said.
Another program under the microscope is Florida’s popular Bright Futures scholarship. Last year the Legislature tightened some of the scholarship eligibility requirements and cut funding slightly.
This year, some suggestions being batted around include shifting the program from merit-based to need-based, making the eligibility requirements more stringent, and cutting the actual scholarship award.
To qualify for Bright Futures “Medallion” scholarship, students need a 970 SAT score, and a 3.0 average. It will be raised to 980 next year and to 1,050 by 2014.
The cost of the program has grown from $70 million when it began in 1997 to more than $400 million today.
Bright Futures, which serves 181,000 students, is funded primarily by Florida Lottery, though as the program grows, lawmakers have had to use other funds to pay for it.
“We are going to have to make difficult decisions this year,” Lynn said. “Certainly we would like to continue everything we are we are doing, but these are serious issues.