Lawmakers back higher education protections, tuition breaks

TALLAHASSEE – Public and private colleges and universities could soon be protected from coronavirus-related lawsuits under a wide-ranging higher education bill that also includes tuition breaks for “non-traditional” students.

The House on Wednesday night voted 102-11 to give final approval to the bill (HB 1261), which had passed the Senate earlier and now will go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Under the proposal, colleges and universities would be shielded from lawsuits related to decisions to close campuses and force students to learn online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The push for legal protections is a response to class-action lawsuits aiming to recover money that students paid with the expectation of on-campus learning last year. 

“The Legislature finds that during the COVID-19 public health emergency, educational institutions had little choice but to close or restrict access to their campuses in an effort to protect the health of their students, educators, staff and communities,” an introductory part of the bill said.

Three parts of the bill are designed to give tuition waivers to some students, with House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, saying the measure fulfills House priorities “designed to help our non-traditional students and the strength of our workforce.”

One part of the bill would give “buy-one-get-one” upper-level courses to students in programs of “strategic emphasis,” which would be adopted by the state university system’s Board of Governors. The eight programs would be in fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I think education is the greatest equalizer, and I think this will go a long way in helping many students in Florida,” House bill sponsor Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, said Wednesday.

Another tuition break in the bill is a “Free Seat Program” at state universities. That would provide online courses at no cost to people who have been out of college for five years and members of the military.

The tuition waivers would be capped at 1,000 recipients per year. 

Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, said Wednesday that placing caps on the number of tuition breaks are “common sense,” adding it was one reason he supported the measure.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to experiment, and I say ‘experiment’ lightly, with opportunities to expand access to education,” Alexander said.

The measure would not require a state appropriation, but a Senate staff analysis said it would reduce revenues for universities because of providing the free and discounted courses. 

One part of the proposal that received pushback from opponents would give cheaper in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students who have grandparents who live in Florida. To qualify, students also would have to score in the 89th percentile or higher on the ACT or SAT exams.

The number of out-of-state students who could receive the tuition breaks would be capped at 350 a year, and Toledo said Wednesday the waivers would have a $5.2 million impact on the university system.

Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, argued against giving tuition breaks to students from outside Florida while a financial-aid program for in-state students is on the chopping block. Hardy pointed to lawmakers eliminating $4.6 million for what is known as the Access to Better Learning and Education, or ABLE, grant program, which serves students at some private colleges. 

“ThatÂ’s about the same amount as the ABLE program which was cut. So my concern is, we are treating out-of-state students to a discount, and weÂ’re treating in-state students in such a way that now less aid is available to them,”  Hardy said.

Opponents of the bill also questioned whether providing the fee waiver would increase university tuition for in-state students.

“It will not impact the tuition for in-state students. That is dictated by the Legislature,” Toledo said.

Alexander, though he supported the measure, said he would like to see eligibility requirements for the waivers relaxed.

“I do still have concerns in regards to the 89th percentile. Just a philosophical perspective,” Alexander said. ”I think if we lowered that and put it based off of an income, socioeconomic … component, I think it would give greater access.”

Under the bill, out-of-state students would no longer be eligible to receive Benacquisto Scholarships for National Merit Scholars after the 2021-2022 academic year. 

Toledo argued that implementing the “grandparent tuition waiver” would replace the Benacquisto Scholarships as a means of attracting high-performing students from outside of Florida.

“The number of out-of-state Benacquisto scholarship rewards is not capped, and the cost to the state has steadily increased since 2018, when out-of-state students became eligible to receive the scholarship,” Toledo said.

The bill also would require the Board of Governors to create an online “dashboard” designed to “assist students and families in making better informed decisions about educational options and future employment opportunities.”

The dashboard would feature data related to graduates in certain degree fields and include information such as post-graduation median salaries and student-loan debts.

New reporting requirements for colleges and universities that receive funding for state financial-aid programs also would be put in place, if the measure is signed into law.

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