Private tuition aid set to increase
Published: Monday, January 26, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 11:06 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Even with Florida's 11 public universities laying off staff and limiting enrollment, the state will spend more than $90 million this year to help residents attend private colleges.
The Florida Resident Access Grant program, better known as "FRAG," was created in 1979. The goal was to keep Floridians who were considering out-of-state private schools and help provide options beyond public universities.
It has been very popular. In the current fiscal year, around 37,000 students received an average of nearly $2,600 each to help pay for tuition at one of the state's 28 private colleges.
Even after budget cuts, about $92 million will be spent on the FRAG program this year. The Florida Department of Education is requesting an increase to slightly more than $100 million for the program next year.
In this month's special session called to fill a $2.3 billion budget deficit, funding for the state's public universities was cut by $112 million.
Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist proposed closing the program to new students except for those at the three historically black private colleges.
Lawmakers ignored his suggestion. Lobbyists for the private colleges are worried Crist may suggest that lawmakers trim or temporarily eliminate the program this year.
Crist's office declined to comment on the specific budget recommendations the governor will make within the next few weeks.
But FRAG has strong support among the most powerful lawmakers in the Capitol.
Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said FRAG is a "heck of a deal" for taxpayers.
He said that giving a student at a private college $2,600 is far cheaper than the taxpayers' cost for public universities where, to subsidize low tuition rates, the state pays around $10,000 per student at four-year schools and around $6,000 at community colleges.
Asked why taxpayers should help families able to afford annual tuition of $35,000 or more at elite schools like Rollins College or the University of Miami, Alexander said, "They could be just as wealthy and going to the University of Florida and eating up $10,000 of taxpayer money."
House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, said FRAG is more important than ever as public universities turn away applicants due to tight budgets.
"We will do everything humanly possible to keep FRAG in place and fund it," Sansom said.
Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, helped create the program in 1979 when he was chairman of the state's independent college association. The chancellor of Flagler College is now the House's higher education budget chairman.
Proctor said the state's 28 private colleges such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University offer specialized programs that Floridians could otherwise not pursue in the state.
He said that mix of specialized and smaller private schools is critical to the state.
"It gives youngsters a broader choice," he said. "You either embrace that notion as being a good thing or you oppose it because you believe that the public education system came over on the Mayflower."
Even members of the Board of Governors, the panel that oversees the state's public universities, don't begrudge the private school aid.
"It would be short-sighted not to recognize that the private schools benefit our citizens also," said Carolyn Roberts, a board member. "I personally have never heard anybody argue that FRAG has not been a powerful tool to educate students."
Florida students also can apply their Bright Futures scholarship toward private school tuition.
The state aid for private school tuition comes as costs for public schools are rising. Five of the state's public universities - the University of Florida among them - will be allowed this fall to raise tuition beyond the coverage of Bright Futures in an effort to generate more revenue.
There are few calling for the elimination of FRAG. But Joe Pickens, president of St. Johns River Community College and the former House education budget chairman, said the priority for lawmakers should be public schools.
"It's always difficult when you're examining budgets at this very stark level, and you have to consider the public institutions first that are getting cut," Pickens said. He stopped short of predicting the future of FRAG, but said that if it were cut, students already receiving the grant should be allowed to stay in the program until they graduate.
"You have to consider it," Pickens said. "If FRAG is eliminated and very few of those students leave their private school and go into public school, then the argument could be made that it doesn't save us all that much money anyway."
Sara Mantle is a senior from Punta Gorda majoring in graphic and interactive communications at Sarasota's Ringling School of Art and Design, which has an annual tuition of about $26,000. She said the state grant made "a huge difference" in helping her and her parents pay for her education.
"It seems like a small amount of money, but it really is a huge help," she said, adding the grants totaled $12,000 during her college years. Asked if she would have attended the school without the grant, she said, "I probably would have found a way to go to Ringling, but it would have been much more difficult."
Larry Thompson, president of Ringling, said the state grants are a factor in "whether or not students come here."
He said the argument is not just economic. The grants are for families who are Florida taxpayers and may need an option beyond the 11 state schools.
"Not all students are the same," he said. "Not everyone is going to succeed at the University of Florida. It's a big, large system. Students need to have alternatives."
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