By LLOYD DUNKELBERGER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Seeking to keep higher-education costs low and help more students graduate on time, Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday will outline an ambitious legislative agenda to cap student fees, eliminate sales taxes on textbook purchases and extend the Bright Futures scholarships to summer classes.
“Florida students should have every opportunity to earn a degree in four years without graduating with mountains of debt,” Scott said in a statement. “While we have fought to make higher education more affordable by holding the line on undergraduate tuition, there is much more that can be done to help students.”
The newest twist in Scott’s higher-education proposals, which he calls “Finish in Four, Save More,” for the 2017 Legislature is an effort to curb fees.
Students at Florida’s 12 state universities pay about $200 per credit hour on average to attend school. But half of that charge is for fees covering services such as health care, student activities, technology and transportation.
Scott wants to freeze fees for university students as well as for students who attend Florida’s 28 state colleges.
“I am calling on the state Legislature to freeze all fees at state colleges and universities,” Scott said.
Scott also wants to freeze tuition at the state colleges, as he has previously pushed at the state universities, saying it would make sure students “aren’t burdened with the constant skyrocketing costs.”
Scott also is renewing his call to extend the Bright Futures scholarships to summer classes. The merit scholarships now only apply to classes taken in the fall and spring semesters.
Making the scholarships cover courses during the summer will help students graduate in four years, said Scott, who has supported the scholarship extension since 2015, although lawmakers have yet to embrace the idea.
Scott said capping fees and providing more scholarships is important to making higher education more affordable.
“In business, you are expected to create more efficiencies or more value,” Scott said. “Our institutions need to provide more value to our students by becoming more affordable and helping students graduate in four years so they can save money and get a great job.”
Only 44 percent of students graduated in four years at state universities, ranging from a high of 67.3 percent at the University of Florida to a low of 13.4 percent at Florida A&M University. The Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, has set a goal of raising the systemwide four-year rate to 50 percent by 2025 and the six-year rate to 70 percent.
The idea behind expanding Bright Futures is that it will provide a financial incentive for more students to attend summer classes, increasing the chances they can graduate more quickly.
Currently, many Bright Futures students shun the summer classes since their scholarships don’t cover the costs. But extending the merit scholarships to summer classes will be costly, with the Board of Governors estimating the price tag between $26 million and $47 million a year, depending on how many students use the opportunity.
Scott’s proposal could compete somewhat in the 2017 legislative session with a plan from Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who wants to have Bright Futures cover the entire tuition cost for top scholarship students, known as “academic scholars.” The scholarships now only pay about half the cost of fees and tuition.
Scott is also renewing his call to eliminate sales taxes on textbook purchases by university and college students. The tax break would save students about $48 million a year.
A student taking five courses per semester would save a minimum of $60 a year, according to the plan.
The governor is expected to formally announce the higher-education proposals Tuesday morning during an appearance in Tampa. He has been gradually rolling out proposals in advance of the 2017 legislative session, which starts March 7.