Access to higher education for all people, regardless of economic background, is a fundamental principle of fairness. Changes to scholarship/grants on the federal and state levels, as well as policy changes within the University of Florida, have the potential to drastically change the makeup of the student body.
UF has gained the nickname of “the rich public university” due to its average parental income of $110,00 per year, more than twice the state average of $44,755. The middle and lower classes are not proportionately represented at UF, despite it being one of the most affordable universities in the nation.
Two years ago, the Board of Governors, the highest governing body of the state university system, voted to allow universities to increase their tuition by 15 percent per year until they reach the national average.
This is on top of the proposed block tuition, expected to be implemented in 2012, that will charge students for 15 credit hours a semester no matter how many hours they take. Currently, the majority of students take less than 15 credits and, under the new policy, will be charged for any unused hours.
Students who work while in college, estimated to be at about 42 percent, will be most strongly affected by this. Recently, the Gainesville-area Students for a Democratic Society staged a “study-in” at Machen’s office in protest of, as student organizer Chrisley Carpio said, “an open assault on poor and working students.” Block tuition might not adversely affect the average student whose parents make $110,000 a year, but it has the potential to disproportionately hurt middle and lower class students.
Bright Futures is also set to change drastically in the next year. The intent of this scholarship is to keep the best and brightest students within the state university system; hence, the current merit-based requirements. Currently 30 percent of recipients come from families that make $100,000 or more a year. UF is at the upper echelon of this, with 98 percent of UF freshmen receiving Bright Futures scholarships and their average annual parental income being $105,000.
This uneven allocation of scholarships/grants for need-based students by the state might be corrected if Bright Futures becomes more need-based as proposed by the Florida College Access Network. But radical changes in the distribution of Bright Futures is unlikely as only the amount paid out is being discussed by lawmakers in Tallahassee.
On the federal level, the future of Pell Grants dodged a major GOP bullet but was still grazed by the Obama compromise. As it stands, Pell Grants will pay out the full $5,550 to lower income students but no longer will students be allowed to take out two grants per year. The second grant is often used for summer classes when many state-sponsored scholarships lapse.
The future of funding for higher education in the State House and Senate is still uncertain. The two competing budgets call for harsh and harsher cuts, with the Senate version being the slightly lesser of the two evils. If the Senate version prevails, there will be about $500 million more in funding than the House version with most of this going towards new construction. The House version cuts Bright Futures by 15 percent (approximately $350 to $450 off average awards) and the Senate version even more so, slashing all benefits by almost $1,000. Students, teachers and support staff at universities are set to lose, no matter which version passes.
Almost 100 students from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Florida State University, and Gulf Coast Community College marched on the state capital building and staged a sit in at the Governors Office on April 21. These students were protesting the lack of access to higher education by poor, middle class, a minority groups but were locked out of Rick Scott’s office and never given a meeting.
The protesters announced the formation of a coalition of students across the state to put pressure on the state government to fully fund higher education. Dustin Ponder, a zone one coordinator for the AFL-CIO, announced “we came here begging for scraps and they wouldn’t meet with us. Next time we’re going to take the whole damn thing”. Expect larger and more frequent demonstrations against cuts to higher education during the next legislation session.
Jeremiah Tattersal is a member of Gainesville’s Workers for a Democratic Society