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Colleges decry grant cut

Private schools say the governor's plan to halt the program would hurt poor students.

By Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer
Published February 27, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG - The governor's proposal to halt a $3,000-per-student grant program for private colleges and universities in Florida would deny thousands of students access to a higher education, at a time when public universities are cutting seats.

Moreover, a dramatic cut in the program could be devastating to financially needy students debating whether to take on the expense of college, say leaders of the 28 private institutions.

"It shuts off options for people that are critical to this state's success," Ed Moore, president of the organization that represents the private colleges, told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Tuesday.

"We take a little bit of money from the state and make it go a long way," he said. "We reach out to people who might not otherwise have a chance."

Private universities produce a third of the degrees granted each year in Florida, and 41 percent of all teaching degrees. Nearly half of the 34,000 students enrolled in a college like Eckerd or Rollins are the first in their families to attend college.

Forty-four percent of them are minorities, compared with 35 percent in the public universities. And one in three private college students is poor enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants, compared to one in five students at a state university.

Yet in his 2008-09 budget plan, Gov. Charlie Crist proposes saving $47-million in much-needed state revenue by freezing the Florida Resident Access Grant for private colleges.

Any students who would have been eligible to get the $3,000 annual grant for the first time in fall 2008 would not get it, with the exception of students attending a historically private black college like Bethune-Cookman.

Legislators are icy to the governor's drastic cut, but the reality is that all state agencies and programs will see their funding reduced next year, thanks to the more than $2-billion budget deficit that already resulted in tens of millions in reductions for public and private higher education.

Moore said the private institutions are ready for a cut of some sort, but he warned that too dramatic a drop in the these grants will shut out students whose education is vital to the state's economic future.

"You'll see a lot of institutions drop their state enrollment," he said. "Students who might have depended on the FRAG money to give them that financial edge will no longer see college as an option."

FRAG is not a need-based grant, but it serves a significant percentage of poor students. Many of the students who get the grants also get, on average, $7,000 in additional aid from the institution they attend because they are financially needy.

A third of the FRAG recipients at Eckerd College and St. Leo University, for example, are eligible for federal Pell Grants.

"The privates are taking on the job the public land-grant universities were set up to do," said Eckerd president Donald Eastman III. "They are taking in the minorities, the first-generation students, the low-income students."

He and other private university presidents say they understand elected officials are trying to save money.

But given the FRAG grants represent less than 1.5 percent of the state's higher education spending, they question the wisdom of cutting a program that has helped produce so many degrees in high-demand fields like teaching and engineering.

The state subsidizes public university students to the tune of roughly $12,000 a year, Moore said. FRAG is a bargain in comparison, he said.

"If I were the decider here, I would be looking to see, how can we use fewer dollars to serve more students? That's what FRAG does."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at or 813 226-3403.

[Last modified February 27, 2008, 00:43:07]

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