Calling the plan ‘punitive’, leaders of Florida’s private colleges and universities are crying foul over a House proposal that could tie the amount of money students receive from a state-backed grant program to the performance of their schools.
The House plan is included in a bill (PCB HEA 22-01) to implement a proposed $8.9 billion budget for higher education.
Part of the bill that has generated controversy during preliminary House budget discussions involves proposed changes to what are known as the Effective Student Access to Education, or EASE, grants.
The nearly $114.9 million program essentially operates as a higher education voucher program, providing tuition assistance to full-time undergraduate students at private institutions.
Currently, the approximately 40,500 scholarship-eligible students receive $2,841 in tuition assistance each year.
House Higher Education Appropriations Chair Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, briefed lawmakers on his panel Thursday on a proposed “tiered structure” for awarding the grants. The structure would determine the amount of money students would receive based on how many of five “benchmarks” institutions meet.
The benchmarks would serve as a ranking system for institutions.
For example, one criterion would be met by a school having an “access rate” of 53%, based on the percentage of students eligible for a need-based Pell grant. A graduation rate of 53%, a retention rate of 68% and a postdoctoral employment rate of 51% are other criteria taken into account in the proposed formula.
“Tier 1 institutions, meaning they meet all five benchmarks, will receive an incentive amount of $4,000 per student. Tier 5 institutions, meaning they only meet one or none of the benchmarks, will not receive an award,” Plasencia explained.
Total scholarship increases and decreases would result in a net reduction in the program of $6.8 million per year, he said.
Bob Boyd, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, said the house plan could see 6,421 students at nine private institutions see their current grant amounts cut in half or receive no aid.
“These measures will take money from students and hurt students in the next school year. So it doesn’t take any money from the students after looking at the data or doing some kind of step-by-step introduction. These are students who could drop out of their nursing program or teaching program starting in August,” Boyd told the News Service of Florida in an interview Friday.
Under the proposed system, students with exemplary academic performance could lose their tuition aid due to the measures imposed on their schools, Boyd said.
The plan comes at a time when the state is grappling with an ongoing shortage of nurses and teachers. Boyd said 25% of all nursing and teaching degrees in Florida come from independent colleges and universities.
“So if you need to produce more nurses, the last thing you should be doing is reducing EASE,” he said.
Florida Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Anna Grace Lewis spoke out against the Chamber’s plan during Thursday’s committee meeting.
“The Florida Chamber recognizes that ICUF universities play a very important role in our state, and we acknowledge and share some of the concerns expressed today regarding the EASE grant,” she said.
Private institutions that serve a majority of minority students could also be negatively impacted.
Rep. Travaris McCurdy, D-Orlando, asked Plasencia if students at some of the state’s historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, could have their grants reduced. There are three such institutions in the ICUF system.
“With HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), it’s no different than other institutions. They are going to be measured based on the same performance metrics, and they will have to compete based on those metrics,” Plasencia said.
Based on current academic year performance, students attending one of the HBCUs would see no funding change under the House plan, while students at two others would receive half the funding that HBCUs would receive. they are currently receiving, Plasencia said.
The Senate, meanwhile, is mulling a plan to increase the amount of EASE scholarships to $3,000 per student.