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Senate Ok's Higher Ed Revamp Bill, But Problems May Loom As House Targets University Foundations

Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart) speaks to members of the Florida Board of Governors Tuesday, 6/21/16
Florida Channel

The Florida Senate has approved wide-ranging changes to the state’s higher education system. It’s a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron. But that doesn’t mean it’s a priority for the House.

Negron has had his eye on Florida’s public college and university systems for a while. Last summer, he embarked on a listening tour of sorts—walking campuses, talking with presidents, faculty and staff, and taking time to hear from students. At Florida A&M University, the conversation focused on cost—and the difficulties some students face in getting to graduation.

Shortly after speaking to students, Negron pitched his idea.

“I want to make sure students in a four year program graduate in four years," he said. "I think we should have an expectation that absent unusual circumstances, people should finish a four year degree in four years, so if cost is a reason why…I think we should address that. Perhaps we should consider charging the same amount for 12 hours as we charge for 15 hours.” 

Negron’s big focus on higher education came closer into view Thursday as the chamber he presides over approved his vision for the state’s college and university system. The plan, by fellow Republican Senator Bill Galvano, requires Florida’s public universities to come up with plans to establish a block tuition schedule: saving students money by letting them take more courses for less cost. The top tier Bright Future’s scholars would get enough money under that program to cover all of their tuition and fees, and the bill establishes new scholarships for farm workers.  It also makes changes to the state’s community colleges.

“This bill streamlines the 2+2 articulation…this has been very successful in the state of Florida," Galvano said. "Each college enters into agreement with a university, so the participation not just at the college level."

In his opening remarks this week, Negron expressed a desire to see Florida's public universities become, "national elite destination universities," that are "in the same league as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, and the University of Michigan."

He sees the bill as the start of Florida’s path forward. But part of the plan could begin running into problems in the House. That chamber’s leaders are starting to turn their attention to university spending—and the main target: the semi-autonomous foundations that exist to raise private money for the schools. House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo says the schools are running wild, spending money that otherwise could have gone to students. He also suggested funding cuts to the universities. But Negron says he’s not worried.

“It’s week 1 day 3 and I certainly don’t expect the house to adopt all the Senate’s priorities this early in the process. I have to take it one step at a time. The Senate has expressed its will that funding universities is a priority.”

He adds that Speaker Richard Corcoran has been supportive of his higher education plan.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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