Florida Senate Bill 540 Could Mean Big Changes To State College System

Legislation proposed by Republican Senator Dorothy Hukill threatens to impact local institutions like Miami Dade College. School officials believe it could have adverse ramifications for the current structure of Florida’s state college system.  

Florida Senate Bill 540, filed by Hukill last October, aims to restructure the college system through the addition of a state oversight board, an enrollment cap on four-year programs and a new performance metric that bases funding on a two-year graduation rate.

The bill was retained on the Senate calendar on Jan. 31 and awaits a vote. If passed, the bill would take effect in October 2018.

Named the College Competitiveness Act of 2018, the bill is a priority for Senate President Joe Negron who has argued that the bill has addressed concerns from SB 374, a similar bill that was vetoed by Governor Rick Scott in 2017.

“President Negron fundamentally believes we have a world-class college system,” said Katherine Betta, a spokeswoman for Negron. “374 included several components related to the state universities system as well as the state college system. Those policy goals are running as two separate bills.”

In his veto letter for SB 374, Scott noted that the previous bill would hurt state colleges by “unnecessarily increasing red tape” in how they function. In a statement provided to The Reporter, the Governor’s office said they are reviewing SB 540.

As he does each year, Governor Scott will thoroughly review the budget line by line to ensure every dollar spent results in a return on investment for Florida’s hardworking taxpayers,” said Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for the Governor. “The Governor continues to encourage communities to be involved in the state budget process and looks forward to reviewing the budget at the conclusion of the ongoing legislative session.”

Hukill’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The bill and its House counterpart, HB 831, has faced criticism from MDC. The College argues that the bill makes it harder to operate, as the new performance metric ties half of the College’s base funding to two-year graduations even though most MDC students graduate within three to four years.

“Most of the students are part-time students and they take more than two years to graduate,” said Victoria Hernandez, director of governmental affairs at MDC. “They’re working, they’re older, they’re raising families.”

Seventy-nine percent of MDC students attended part-time during the Fall semester, the average age being 25.5. The average age of the 21 percent of full-time students was 21.6. However, the  numbers can fluctuate, according to Juan Mendieta, the director of communications at MDC.

The College’s current measure of funding is based on four metrics: completion in up to four years, the transfer rate to universities, post-graduation job placement and the starting salaries for those jobs. By adding a measure based on full-time students, Hernandez argues that the addition will place MDC in an impossible situation.

“MDC (sic) does pretty well on those metrics, so when you add a fifth one, it’s only based on a small number of students,” Hernandez said. “When you put half of your money at risk, you’re not going to make it.”

That would force budget cuts, which could impact the College’s six four-year baccalaureate programs— another measure SB 540 would affect, as the bill would cap a college’s enrollment of four-year programs at 20 percent.

“If we can’t open more sections because we can’t hire more faculty, that’s going to be bad for students,” Hernandez said. “If you don’t have the money, you have to start cutting, [and] if you have to start making cuts, you start by cutting people.”

That fear is shared by sophomore Andres Perez, 19, who set up a booth at Wolfson Campus for students to contact their legislator to oppose the bill.

“I feel like this is a bill that’s targeting [students],” said Perez, who pays for MDC out of pocket. “I don’t think it’s fair for students like me, who’s doing everything they can, for Miami Dade College to be penalized.”

The bill also creates a new state board to oversee Florida’s 28 state colleges, transitioning power away from the current system of trustee boards. It is meant to emulate the Board of Governors that governs state universities, though Hernandez stresses the differences between the two models.

“That’s fine for the state universities because they are much more regional and international,” Hernandez said. “The composition of students come from all over. They have other missions.”

Negron’s office says the bill would not affect the power of the board of trustees, viewing the state board as a compliment to the college by removing them from the purview of the K-12 system.

“It would actually empower colleges because they would have their own independent voice at the state level apart from the K-12 system,” Betta said. “It shows how much we value the college system and the education of our students.”

Hernandez disputes this, saying the state board would not be able to adequately make decisions that reflect the College’s largely part-time population with the bill’s focus on full-time students.

“Why measure something that’s not reflective of your student body?” Hernandez said.

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