Find Orlando Family Magazine on Facebook! Follow Orlando Family Magazine on Twitter! Orlando Family Magazine RSS Feed

A Sunshine Promise

A South Florida lawmaker wants to help local students get access to a free college tuition— but with one major condition…

Today, college tuition rates are steadily increasing, leaving graduates with hefty student loan debt. In fact, the total student loan debt as of 2016, according to the New York Federal Reserve, is $1.31 trillion making it the second-highest consumer debt category, right behind mortgage debt.

Looking at these overwhelming numbers, local lawmakers—specifically Rep. Shevrin D. Jones, DBroward— are thinking of new ways to give local students access to a more affordable education. “When we look at higher education, it’s not a conversation that we’re having … when it comes to tuition, enrollment and retention of students after their freshman year,” Jones explains.

“Community colleges in specific know that almost 79 percent of students attend community college once they come out of a high school because of affordability and preparedness—but more specifically, affordability.” In response, Jones recently presented the “Sunshine Scholarship Program” bill, which is similar to the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, which went into effect in 2015.

The “Sunshine Scholarship Program,” as it was presented, would provide 100 percent funding of an eligible Florida student’s tuition at a Florida College System institution for up to 72 credit hours for an associate degree program and 120 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree program, after all federal and state financial aid awards and grants have been applied. In order to be considered for this program, however, students must meet certain conditions, including having an annual household income of $125,000 or less and they must be enrolled for at least 30 credits a year while maintaining a 2.5 GPA.

While the program is applicable to both community colleges and trade and technical schools, there’s a catch. “The kick to it is that upon completion of your degree, you owe the state back time, which means you will have to stay within the state to work, basically pay us back for what we’ve done,” explains Jones. “We’re really not giving anything away, we’re giving you a loan … to keep your talent within the state of Florida.”

If, however, a student leaves the state before that time period is completed, they must repay the state in full, with an annual interest rate. This does not, of course, apply to students enlisted in the United States Armed Forces. The bill, as of press time, is currently waiting for review by the Post-Secondary Education Subcommittee and has already been met with mixed opinions. For starters, some call the program a “handout,” while others are in favor of the bill, citing how they wish it had been available to them while enrolled in college.

“It’s not a handout, it’s a handup,” exclaims Jones in response to naysayers. “I think it’s a win for any state where you’re putting more opportunities in front of people to help them have a better life. … We are creating a sexy appeal—for the lack of a better word—in keeping those individuals here, to show them we really do care about what you do after graduation. … We’re educating students within the state and after we educate them, those students are leaving and they’re going to more thriving areas. … Being able to leave these opportunities within in the state so those individuals can grow upon them, it’s a win for us,” he adds.

As for local colleges, Jones explains it would boost enrollment numbers and give those institutions the opportunity to assess their curriculum and create academic fields to help meet the needs of their community. “Colleges and universities need to look at their curriculum and [make sure] it’s aligned with what is happening naturally because we just can’t teach students the way we used to teach them years ago,” he adds.

Fort Lauderdale’s Broward College—whose mission is to provide affordable and accessible education to any one person who hopes to improve their career—is supportive to say the least. “To understand our position on the Sunshine Scholarship Program, we first have to look at the demographic makeup of the students at Broward College and other community colleges in the state,” explains Associate Vice President for Student Financial Services Theresa Cowan.

“Within our student community, 80 percent represent minority populations, 76 percent are attending classes part-time, and more than 85 percent receive some form of financial aid. Also consider that nearly 75 percent, or 48,500 Broward College students, fall under the $125,000 household income threshold outlined in the bill. Our students are moms and dads, displaced workers retraining for a new career, and first-generation college students.

“If passed, the Sunshine Scholarship Program will have a far-reaching effect on the lives of thousands across the state,” Cowan adds. “Money no longer imposes a burden on many looking to achieve their dreams through education, further incentivizing students to focus on their goals and complete their degrees on time. This will only serve to improve our economy by infusing our state’s workforce pipeline with eager new future hires.”

Parents, on the other hand, have mixed feelings about the proposed bill. Julie Mitchell, an Orlando parent to both a middle schooler and a freshman in college, is supportive, but also has concerns. “As a parent who is active in my local public high-school, this program is extremely enticing as it opens access to postsecondary education for many students,” explains Mitchell, who also co-owns a college planning company, The College Map, and is an independent college counselor.

“So many students decide not to further their education because they do not recognize the options. … This program sends messages of hope and possibility,” she adds. “My only concern about the program is that if a student has to leave Florida before ‘time is up’—possibly because of a spouse’s relocation for work, ill parent, etc.—and must repay the whole scholarship plus interest. I would hope some exclusions would apply.”

On the other side of the debate, Allison Diaz is concerned it would cause students to not try hard enough in school as a result. “It could be positive, but I also see it taking a lot away from the kids that really, really work hard. I do like the fact that it gives people an opportunity not to have so much debt.

“I do have a 23-year-old, who got a college scholarship, carried a 3.5 GPA, played volleyball full-time and was an All-American, but still walked out with $20,000 debt,” adds Diaz, who is also a parent to a 17-year-old son.

As for the realistic possibility of her children remaining in the state after completion of their degrees, Diaz says, “I think not having that debt over your head and getting an education where you’re able to make a higher income, I think they would do that.”

Despite the opposing stance, numbers don’t lie. With similar promise programs in New York, Tennessee, Oregon and Rhode Island, each movement has gained positive traction. “According to the 2017 Tennessee Promise Annual Report, community colleges in the state experienced a collegegoing rate increase of 4.6 percentage points in the first year, a single year increase which is larger than the past seven years combined,” states Cowan.

“Additionally, the retention rate of students who received Tennessee Promise funding was substantially higher than their non-program student counterparts at 63 percent compared to 42 percent. It would stand to reason that the Sunshine Scholarship Program would have the same effect in our state, making the dream to attend college a reality for many in Florida.”

While Jones waits for the go-ahead on the program, he continues to press the issue of how important this bill is for Florida’s future workforce. “Other states have done this in a very bipartisan manner and they understand the need to drive a thriving workforce,” he explains. “What are we doing to innovate our workforce, put people into our workforce and drive energy into our workforce? I think this is the way we do that: by empowering through education and moving individuals along, not just through college, but through other industries that include technical and trade schools.

“I think it’s going to be heard,” he adds with hope. “I want to begin to help students in the next cycle in the fall of next year.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s December 2017 issue.

Leave A Comment