Some deals are just too good to pass up.
The more than 800,000 students who currently attend one of the 28 community colleges in Florida have traditionally had a relative bargain. They’ve secured valuable degrees, earned transfer opportunities, and achieved financial success -- all for relatively little money. Last year, the average cost for tuition and fees at the state’s community colleges was about $64 per credit hour.
But even a small sum can keep many well-qualified low-income students out of college. The community college tuition has also impeded the state's efforts to woo some students away from crowded state universities, which have among the lowest tuition and fee rates in the country, according to some educators and legislators in Florida.
As part of the state’s Bright Futures Scholarship program , the pot has been sweetened. New legislation approved last month by Gov. Jeb Bush, which provides $61 million more this year for the Bright Futures program, students who achieve a 3.0 grade-point average in high school and get at least a 970 on the SAT will have 100 percent of their tuition and fees covered at the state’s community colleges. Until now, students who met that benchmark had to pay 25 percent of their tuition and fees at two-year institutions.
More than 130,000 students received one of three of Bright Futures Scholarships in 2004-5, which cost taxpayers $276 million. The three tiers of the program provide different levels of financial support to student, based on their grades, SAT scores and community service. Community college students have always been eligible for the three tiers of the program, but the new legislation has relaxes requirements for their receipt of full tuition assistance.
Legislators have now raised the budget to $337 million. It's unknown at this point how much the enhancements for two-year students will ultimately cost.
“Anything that’s free will attract attention,” says Michael Comins, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of Community Colleges. “It’s just one more incentive for a student to choose community college.”
Education experts in the state say that community colleges will now have a bit of a leg up over public colleges and universities. Currently, under the Bright Futures program, students entering a public college or university with a 3.0 GPA must pay 25 percent of their tuition and fees. At the University of Florida, tuition and fees are $3,300 per year -- not a huge amount -- but an amount that does prove to be burdensome to some students and families.
“Students could save anywhere between $600 and $800 a year,” says State. Rep. Joe Pickens, a Republican who is chairman of the House of Representatives Education Appropriations Committee. “For those people that it makes a difference for, that’s a lot of money.”
Steve Orlando, a spokesman for the University of Florida, says that students who transfer from a Florida community college after two years are given a certain amount of priority over other students in the admissions process at his institution, so students who take advantage of the new plan could also have an advantage in transferring.
“Lots of people in the state are concerned about securing access to higher education for all students,” says Orlando. He notes that about 20,000 students applied this year for only 6,700 open spots at the institution.
The new plan makes good economic sense for the state, supporters of the change say. According to a February report by Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan research firm, the 38,968 students who graduated from community college in 2003 will increase state output by $13.6 billion over a 40-year career span, and generate wages for others in the amount of $5.5 billion. They will also create 102,768 jobs, which reflects 2.6 jobs for Florida’s economy for each community college graduate.
The report also indicates that for an individual, an associate of science degree from a community college translated to a lifetime personal income increase of $480,000, compared to those whose formal education ended at high school graduation. A community college associate of arts degree translated to a lifetime personal income increase of $220,000 when compared to those whose formal education ended at high school graduation.
Some community college officials at institutions throughout the state have begun sending mail to students who would qualify for the expanded tuition waiver. Florida’s Department of Education is expected to begin airing radio and TV spots to promote the program.