Written by: Jeffrey Pierre / Staff Writer
Student government leaders from every public university in Florida will meet later this month in Tallahassee to review state policies that many say limit the access of post-secondary education.
Alongside student debt, loan repayment and the increasing cost of tuition, Student Government President Alexis Calatayud said University representatives plan to make financial aid a key issue at Polithon, a traveling forum that helps young adults become policy changers.
“The largest issue is the diminishing amount of financial aid available to students, particularly students from low-income families and minority backgrounds,” Calatayud said.
Polithon will host the Florida Student Association (FSA), a non-partisan organization, on September 26 and 27. The focus for the 36 representatives – 3 students from each public university – will be to find common ground and draft a one-page proposal for the state legislature, Calatayud said.
Higher education has been a hot button issue among Florida lawmakers. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found “insufficient evidence of a legal violation” in a December 2014 decision.
Governor Rick Scott was criticized by state democrats in January after he proposed to expand the Bright Futures Scholarship by $23.5 million to cover summer classes. Scott, who saved the state over $200 million by increasing eligibility for the scholarship, failed to address how the cutback disproportionately affected some students in his plan.
In terms of college attainment for minority students, Calatayud said, “The biggest obstacle is money.”
Attainment rates for African Americans are as low as 27 percent with Native American at 23 percent and Latino Americans at 20 percent. 2013 showed that, at almost 60 percent, Asian Americans had the highest attainment rate; whites were second with 44 percent.
Trends show, nationally and statewide, that college attainment is slowly improving, but not enough. According to the Lumina Foundation, a higher-ed advocacy group, by 2020, two thirds of all jobs will require post-secondary education.
“By current levels, we will only produce a workforce where only 45 percent have degrees,” Calatayud said. “Florida needs more educated people.” Added cuts to financial aid will take the University’s graduation rate of 54 percent and make a college degree even tougher, she said.
State projections predicted that an estimated 116,000 students received about $260 million in scholarships for the 2015-16 year. That’s 10 percent less than 2014-15 and 24 percent less than the 2013-14 year. “We just need to help the people in the system graduate,” Calatayud said.
While tuition rates have increased over 67 percent since the Great Recession in Florida’s public four-year universities, a report by Young Invincibles cited a dramatic decrease in the Bright Futures program.
“In 2010, Florida allocated $424 million to Bright Futures. In 2015, the legislature allocated only $266 million, a 37 percent cut,” the report said. “The program used to cover one out of every three students. Today, it covers only one in eight.”
SGA Lobbying Coordinator Juan Gilces said state legislatures also spend tax dollars to help students at private universities pay for school. He said public grants for private school has recently been increased.
Gilces, who will join Calatayud and Senate Speaker Alian Callazo in Tallahassee, said public universities need to be the priority but the financial aid discussion an issue about fairness.
“We’re all just coming together as students to address the issues, but private institutions have done this before. They have little more experience in this,” Gilces said. “Private institutions have a strong” – especially in lobbying – “presence in Tallahassee.”
The next step for Calatayud, who was voted internal vice chair for FSA last spring, is to take a state progress report to a national level.
“We need to think big,” Calatayud said. “We can think bold.”
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