Florida State University’s Bryan Hall (Pic by Urban)

Two bills aimed at reforming Florida higher education have been cleared for the House floor. The bills, developed by Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, would uncap tuition increases for Florida State University and the University of Florida and boost STEM degree production and accountability.

PCB EDC 12-03, passed by the House Education Committee on Monday, creates further requirements and metrics for state colleges and universities in their 5-year plans, and grants flexibility to the Board of Governors to waive statutory caps on fees. It also puts a focus on STEM degree production, requiring a unified plan that would “inform, advise and recruit students into STEM and STEM-related programs and employment opportunities.” Gov. Rick Scott has been vocal in his emphasis on STEM education and caught flack from critics after snubbing liberal-arts majors.

HB 7129, cleared by the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday, creates fourteen criteria related to national prominence – eleven of which must be met by a research university seeking flexibility in setting its tuition rate beyond the current 15 percent cap. The tuition increase would be approved by the university’s Board of Trustees, the Board of Governors, and the State Legislature. The University of Florida and Florida State University are the only two state schools that currently meet the criteria.

Some lawmakers argue that the bills could affect students’ access to universities and to the state’s Prepaid and Bright Futures Scholarships.

“I’m concerned the trust fund will fill up with billions of dollars supposed to be appropriated to universities, and it will be taken and put to another area of the budget the legislature deems more important at the time,” said Rep. Martin David Kiar, D-Southwest Ranches.

Proctor, chair of the House Education Committee, said he does not think tuition dollars have been or will ever be used to address other budget areas.

Proctor was previously president of Flagler College and will be termed out at the end of this session after eight years in the House.

Gov. Scott has said he does not want tuition increases but instead wants to focus on cost-cutting at universities inundated with budget cuts.

In discussions between the House Education Committee and state university and college presidents, representatives heard that tuition increases could help move along those students who have spent more than four years at a university because of generous state financial aid and lower-than-average tuition rates.

University of Florida President Bernie Machen told the Committee that his university was “flipped,” in that two-thirds of its 2010 graduates had zero debt, while the national average saw two-thirds of graduates with debt.

Machen told the committee UF could aim to be a nationally ranked top ten research university if its tuition was more market-sensitive.

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