Legislators in Florida are mulling an unusual financial aid program that would help students pay tuition at a wide range of for-profit colleges in the state. The bill establishing the Florida Independent Collegiate Assistance Grant Program is seen as controversial because it would provide funds for students at colleges that are nationally as well as regionally accredited.
According to language in the bill, eligible institutions must be accredited by an agency that is recognized by the United States Department of Education and have performance requirements that “include minimum objective quantitative standards." The colleges would need to adhere to a statewide course numbering system that helps facilitate student transfers.
Florida’s other grant programs have offered money to students wanting to attend private nonprofit colleges and regionally accredited for-profit institutions, but some lawmakers and lobbyists have called for the creation of a program that opens the doors to commercial colleges that are nationally accredited, too.
The State Senate's 2007 budget includes between $2 and $3 million for the program, which would allow more than 2,600 students to receive a maximum award of $1,155 per student a year. More than 200 degree-granting institutions could become eligible to participate in the program. A comparable House bill is still in that chamber's education committee.
Supporters of the proposed grant program say it is a sensible response to Florida’s need for more skilled workers. The program would be limited to full-time undergraduates who are enrolled in programs that funnel students into the state's 15 highest-demand occupations, based on the number of annual job openings -- such as nurses, auditors and executive secretaries. It is expected that students enrolled in distance learning or online programs would be prohibited from the program because of a lack of money.
Sen. Stephen Wise, the Florida lawmaker who is sponsoring the bill, said he wants to provide students with ample opportunities to enter high-need fields. “What I’m trying to do if level the playing field for students,” Wise said. “The money goes with the student, and we should be focusing on occupations that affect Florida -- we’re desperate for teachers and nurses; I don’t need any more 17th-century European history majors, because I can’t find them a job.”
Wise said some community colleges in Florida have no space for students, so the students should be able to apply grant money toward tuition at proprietary institutions. Cecil Kidd, executive director of the Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools and Colleges, which represents many of the state’s for-profit institutions, said the program would provide students with more choices. "It is truly student-centered," he said. "You can go to a fairly long list of institutions that fit the needs of many adult learners."
Added Maria Regueiro, vice president and assistant chief executive at Florida National College, a proprietary institution: “Students will have to borrow less, and many are so appreciative of being able to complete their education in a short time.”
Those who oppose the bill argue that it is fiscally irresponsible in a state where money is already in short supply for public and private universities. Some contend that Florida legislators aren’t familiar with many of the for-profit colleges that would benefit from the program.
“I see it as a bottomless pit -- like a winky-blinky sign that says, 'Open up your school in Florida and we’ll send you our dollars,’ ” said Sen. Jim King, who voted against the bill. “I’m not so sure we can print money fast enough."
King pointed out that some of the institutions -- such as Florida Metropolitan University -- that would be able to participate in the program are being investigated by state officials for possible wrongdoing in their admissions practices. “There’s no reason why we as a state would want to jump into that quagmire,” King said. Added Sen. Evelyn Lynn, who also opposed the bill: “I’m concerned that we don’t have any way of checking on the quality of these colleges. While we certainly want to increase access to college, we have a responsibility to spend taxpayer dollars wisely.”
Jeff Silber, a financial analyst with Harris Nesbitt who tracks for-profit higher education, said he is surprised to see the bill being given consideration given the pending lawsuits involving for-profit institutions. But Kenneth Redd, director of research and policy at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said he expects more states to try to introduce similar programs because "most [for-profits] have proven their ability to participate in aid programs." Legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives to renew the federal Higher Education Act would give for-profit colleges more access to some federal aid programs.
Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said most states still set aside only a small percentage of their financial aid money for for-profit colleges, though some, such as Connecticut, are beginning to devote “substantial” resources. “I think some folks thought for-profit would always remain a small piece of the pie,” Reindl said. “Because the segment has grown so quickly, when legislatures drew up their programs and brought in everyone, they did it without realizing what would the results would be,” he said.
Reindl said he sees something "philosophically wrong" with taxpayers subsidizing institutions with a profit-making bottom line. Lynn, the Florida senator, said that if the bill's aim is to prepare students for high-need fields, a better alternative would be putting money into the state’s community colleges and public university branch campuses.
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