THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 23, 2011 --
Students will pay more for tuition and receive less financial aid under early drafts of higher education budget proposals emerging in the Legislature.
Under pressure to whack hundreds of millions of dollars from higher education programs, legislative budget writers have suggested cuts to nearly every state-funded financial aid program that exists, from scholarships like the popular Bright Futures program to the Florida Resident Access Grants given to private school students.
Lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and Senate have targeted popular programs such as Bright Futures, which guarantees funding for public universities and college for eligible students. The Senate wants to cut per-student funding of those scholarships by $1,000, while the House has suggested a 15 percent cut. Legislators also want to toughen eligibility requirements so that fewer students qualify for Bright Futures.
This comes on top of a proposed tuition increase in the House’s higher education budget of 5 percent. State universities can also raise tuition above the amount set in state budgets, with a limit of a 15 percent total increase.
Republicans in the Legislature, who control the budget writing process, have said for months that these cuts are a painful, but necessary, reaction to a sluggish economy and the lack of federal economic stimulus funds.
“It’s a pretty rough economic time,” said Rep. Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake. “It is what it is. It wasn’t like we went in and slashed and burned without reason. We didn’t have the dollars.”
Democrats, who are vastly outnumbered in both the House and Senate, say they are concerned about proposals to cut student aid during a time when many families are struggling and tuition costs are rising.
However, many critics cautioned that it is too early in the budget game to wring hands over cuts.
“I am grateful that what was proposed today is not the final budget,” said Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, who sits on the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “If this were the final budget, the spending cuts and the increases in tuition would combine for a very dim look for the future of our state.”
Frank Brogan, chancellor of the State University System Board of Governors, said earlier this week that because tuition increases are expected, legislators must remain sensitive to not “pricing eligible students out of the market.”
“It is incumbent upon us to remember that so many of our students are desperate for financial assistance,” he said.
Private universities and colleges are also bracing for budget cuts.
The Florida Resident Access Grant (FRAG), which gives a set grant to Florida students who attend Florida private schools, is being slashed in the House budget by $300 per student.
The Senate is looking at similar cuts and could shift the state’s grant-giving policy, allowing private universities some leeway to give out FRAG awards in varying amounts, said Ed Moore, the President of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.
Rep. Jeff Clemens, D- Lake Worth, complained Wednesday that drafts of the higher education budget show a preference towards private schools over the type of aid given to students at public universities.
That’s because the House has suggested per-student cuts in grants to private school students of about 8.9 percent, less than the cut to scholarships like Bright Futures, which is taking a 15 percent hit.
One unexpected budget wrinkle is the emergence of Keiser University as a non-profit. Now that Keiser is non-profit, its students qualify for the grants given to private school students. Its new pool of over 5,000 students means the other 35,000 students who are eligible would receive a smaller award.
The House has suggested giving students attending schools that are newly eligible for FRAG grants – like Keiser - a lesser award of $645 a year.
Other targets in the budget are historically black colleges and universities, which might see their funding drop by anywhere from 23 percent to as much as 50 percent under budget proposals.
Meanwhile, the Senate has suggested cutting funding that had paid for 14 Board of Governors positions and an overall cut of 30 percent, while the House is more restrained. Lawmakers in both chambers say they will refuse to put state funds toward university system salaries that extend past $200,000 a year.
The suggested cuts are not final. The House of Representatives and Senate will start debating the overall budget next week, and in the coming weeks, hearing arguments from lobbyists and other groups on why certain cuts shouldn’t be made. Then, they’ll negotiate on a final budget that is passed by the end of the 60-day legislative session.