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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – State colleges have raised concerns after a Senate higher-education package cleared an Education Committee on Monday in a unanimous vote.

The two bills encompass the bulk of Senate President Joe Negron’s initiative to elevate Florida’s 12 public universities and 28 state colleges.

Among other proposals, the bills would extend Bright Futures merit scholarships to cover the full tuition and fees for top-performing university and college students, known as “academic scholars.” It would double state support for scholarships for “first generation” university students. It would require state universities to create block tuition programs.

It would also create funding pools to help universities attract top-quality faculty and recognize high-achieving graduate and professional programs, including law and medical schools.

In addition, it would mandate each state college develop at least one “targeted pathway” agreement with a state university that would guarantee students a place in a university program once they finish their two-year associate degrees and meet the program requirements.

But state college officials questioned the Senate proposal to hold the 28 schools to a new performance measure based on how many students finish their degrees “on time” — two years for an associate degree and four years for a baccalaureate degree. Meeting the performance standard would make the colleges eligible for more state funding.

It might be a difficult goal to reach as a Senate analysis of data on students who started attending state colleges in 2009 showed only 4 percent finished their baccalaureate degrees in four years at either a state college or a state university. The four-year graduation rate ranged from zero percent at Florida Keys Community College to about 13 percent at Santa Fe College, the Senate analysis showed.

In contrast, about 44 percent of university students finish their baccalaureate degrees in four years.

Michael Brawer, executive director of the Association of Florida Colleges, said it was important that the Senate legislation take into account differences in the demographics of university students versus state college students.

He said the college population is a “non-traditional” group, with data showing 65 percent attend the colleges part time, with an average age of 25, and 58 percent are minority students.

“These are working adults who may not be able to realistically set aside all of their life responsibilities to attend college full time and attain that baccalaureate degree in that neat little four-year period,” Brawer said.

He also urged the senators not to change current performance standards, which were recently put into state law.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, sponsor of the legislative package, said the performance standards were only aimed at “full-time” college students and would exempt students like adults going to college part time while working and raising families.

Galvano said the Senate was still gathering information on the state colleges, including graduation data on two-year degrees as well as the various technical certificates and programs offered by the schools. He said the performance standards could be revisited once that data was collected.

He also said the overall legislation was not aimed at putting “additional pressure on students,” but rather was designed to provide more opportunities for Floridians to attend colleges or universities “regardless of financial background,” while improving the quality of the institutions.

Galvano said students who take longer to graduate end up being financially penalized, noting it costs students roughly $23,000 for each year they attend a state university. If they take six years to earn a four-year degree they end up “behind the eight ball,” not including the salaries they have lost because they did not graduate earlier, he said.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, called the state college system “a gem,” and said the Senate would be sending the wrong message to lower- and middle-class Floridians if the legislation was aimed at guiding most students to four-year universities rather than state colleges, even if they are earning two-year degrees or technical certificates.

“I want to honor that career path as well,” said Lee, who voted for the legislation.

The News Service of Florida’s Lloyd Dunkelberger