Lawmakers consider increase for college financial aid program
By Jessica Bakeman
February 12, 2016
TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers are considering an increase in funding for a state financial aid program that helps students who don’t qualify for need- or merit-based scholarships to attend private colleges and universities.
The state has two such programs for students pursuing four-year degrees. The larger, more established Florida Resident Access Grant, or FRAG, was created in 1979 and helps students who attend private, non-profit universities that are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. A relatively new program, Access to Better Learning and Education, or ABLE, was created in 2003. It serves students who attend private, for-profit schools that are SACS-accredited or non-profit schools that are accredited by a different regional accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
FRAG recipients get $3,000 a year, while ABLE scholarships are half that. For years, advocates for ABLE grant schools have lobbied for parity. This year, they might get it.
The state House of Representatives’ budget proposal, which the chamber approved on Thursday, includes funding for equitable awards under both programs: $3,030 annually. That comes to $116.4 million for the more than 38,000 students receiving FRAG and $10.2 million for the more than 3,000 students getting ABLE grants.
The Senate’s proposal, which the upper chamber also passed on Thursday, did not include an increase for either award. The plan allocates $115.3 million for FRAG awards of $3,000 each and $5.1 million for ABLE awards for $1,500 each.
But Senate education appropriations chairman Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, said he’s willing to work with the House to increase ABLE funding.
Now that both chambers have passed their budget proposals, the leaders will work together to compromise on a final 2016-17 spending plan.
“It’s certainly something we’re going to talk about in conference,” Gaetz said, adding that he and House education appropriations subcommittee chairman Erik Fresen “have talked about that specific issue, and I agree with the House of Representatives that, if we can find the money, that’s a good goal.”
However, “it would also mean thinning the soup somewhere else in order to do that,” he said. “There’s no magic money. That would have to come from somewhere else.”
Gaetz’s committee has also considered legislation in recent years that would crack down on colleges and universities whose students have high default rates on student loans. A bill sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Ring that would punish colleges if their federal student loan cohort default rate is higher than 30 percent three years in a row or higher than 40 percent in a single year would be part of a larger conversation about financial aid, he said.
“These institutions that facilitate too much debt that really doesn’t add value and sort of crushes young people — we’ve got to take up that issue in the context of discussing the equity between FRAG and ABLE,” Gaetz said.
Mark Anderson, a lobbyist who represents for-profit universities whose students are eligible for ABLE grants, said he agrees student debt is an important consideration when determining which institutions should get state-sponsored financial aid. Anderson said he supports legislation to crack down on “bad actors,” as long as there was a uniform policy that applied to all private colleges and didn’t single out certain ones.
Anderson represents South University and The Art Institutes, which each have several Florida locations. He said the schools have done a good job of counseling students so they don’t borrow more than they can pay back. The most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education shows the default rates for students who attended those schools were near the 14 percent average for all Florida higher education institutions.
Administrators at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami are also advocating for an increase in ABLE funding. It’s a non-profit school accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Tuition is about $31,000 a year.
Harell Taylor, a sophomore from Tampa studying criminal justice, said his ABLE grant has helped him afford Johnson & Wales and an increase in funding would help him graduate and reach his goal of going to law school.
“When you’re faced with financial burdens, sometimes those dreams and goals might not disappear but be put on hold,” he said. “When I got the ABLE grant, I thought there was still hope out there.”
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