As a Floridian and an alumnus of the University of Florida, I share and support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pride in the accomplishments of the state’s public higher education system and his understanding that the future quality of life of Florida depends on high quality higher education.
It is vital to recognize, however, that only two-thirds of the state’s colleges and universities are public: One third are private, enrolling 156,000 students, most of whom are Floridians, too. More than half of these students are majoring in STEM, business, nursing and education programs. Half are minorities, and 42 percent receive Pell Grants. Nearly all of these students receive financial aid.
These students earn more than 40 percent of the graduate and professional degrees awarded in Florida annually, and 25,000 undergraduate degrees annually. They, and their institutions, are a vital part of Florida’s higher education system.
And yet, last year the $3,500 EASE (“Effective Access to Student Education”) Grants provided to Floridians who attend private colleges was cut 18 percent in the waning days of the legislative session – a sudden $659 increase in the cost of attending college to each of those students. This cut makes no sense for two reasons: First, it costs Florida nearly $15,000 annually to subsidize each Florida resident in the state’s public university system; a total of $5 billion for 341,000 students. To disincentivize the students who cost only $3,500 – a savings of more than $11,000 per student – is fiscally and educationally wasteful.
Second, in a state that supports public funding of charter schools as well as vouchers for up to 18,000 students to attend private K-12 schools per year in order to maximize student choice and cost effectiveness, defunding the EASE program makes no sense. If all the Floridians who attend private colleges enrolled at public colleges, it would cost the state roughly three quarters of a billion dollars a year to accommodate them not including the additional billions of dollars required in new facilities and infrastructure to serve them all.
I am not proposing that Florida does not need an excellent public university system, but simply that the state’s resources can go a lot further, and Florida’s students are better served, by a spending strategy that makes the option to attend private college more – not less – affordable. I encourage the state to restore the EASE Grant to $3,500 per year for each Florida student and, if possible, increase the grant in the interest of maximizing student choice and helping Florida higher education be as cost-effective as possible.