Universities could be protected from coronavirus lawsuits under bill coming before Florida House



Combining several higher-education proposals, a bill that would protect colleges and universities from coronavirus-related lawsuits and give tuition breaks to out-of-state students who have grandparents living in Florida is poised for a vote by the full House.

The measure (HB 1261), sponsored by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, was filed to offer “buy-one-get-one-free” courses to students pursuing degrees in fields such as science, math and engineering at state universities.

But as it was approved Tuesday by the House Education & Employment Committee, the bill also included the proposals related to lawsuit protections and out-of-state students.

Toledo said the House’s proposed budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year would provide $66.3 million to the state university system “as an incentive to implement the provisions related to the buy-one-get-one tuition and fee waiver.”

The proposal to give tuition and fee waivers generated little debate or controversy Tuesday, compared to the newly added provisions.

Under the bill, high-performing students who live outside of Florida could receive cheaper in-state tuition rates if they have grandparents who reside in Florida. Debate during the committee meeting centered on whether such a change could lead to fraud.

“How are we going to make sure that we verify that the student really does have grandparents, and someone doesn’t just set up ‘Grandparents R Us.com’ and offers to claim to be everybody’s grandparent in order to offer all of these kids in-state tuition. How are we going to protect against fraud?” asked Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County.

Rep. Patt Maney, a Shalimar Republican who has sponsored the “grandparent tuition waiver” proposal in a separate bill (HB 1273), told the panel that the university system Board of Governors is expected to require grandparents to sign a form “asserting that they are grandparents.”

Toledo said she hopes to provide a more specific definition of “grandparent” in the bill as it moves forward. After a 14-6 vote Tuesday in the Education & Employment Committee, the bill is positioned to go to the full House.

“I do believe that ‘grandparent’ has not been defined in statute, and that’s something that I look forward to looking into and seeing if we can narrow down that definition and make sure that there is no fraud,” Toledo said.

The bill also aims to protect public and private colleges and universities from lawsuits stemming from campuses being shut down —- and students being forced to learn online —- last spring because of the pandemic.

Class-action lawsuits have been filed seeking to recover money that students paid with the expectation of on-campus learning.

Sandra Harris, a lobbyist for Nova Southeastern University, said Nova faces two lawsuits related to its shift to online instruction.

“We made the investment and we acted quickly to transition from face-to-face to online learning, and now we’re facing lawsuits,” Harris said, “and we would appreciate your support of this issue.”

The Senate is weighing liability protections for colleges and universities as part of a proposal (SB 7070) that also would shield public-school students from testing accountability this year.

The House bill also would place new eligibility requirements on a financial aid program for students at private colleges and universities. The program, known as Effective Access to Student Education, or EASE, helps about 41,000 students pay tuition.

Under the measure, colleges and universities would lose eligibility for the program if they don’t meet performance benchmarks related to issues such as graduation, retention and job-placement rates.

The plan was previously included in the House’s proposed higher education budget, drawing immediate objections from the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.

“If these metrics are applied, 13,000 students will lose their award now, today. And this will disqualify 12 of the 30 ICUF (Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida) institutions from awarding EASE,” ICUF President Bob Boyd said Tuesday.

Several grant recipients spoke in opposition to imposing new eligibility requirements.

“Had it not been for the EASE grant or programs like this, I wouldn’t be able to continue my education and further my dream of becoming a nurse and being successful in the workforce,” said Michelle Paige, a nursing student at Keiser University Jacksonville.

The Senate is not considering new eligibility requirements for the EASE program. Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said last month the Senate’s higher education spending plan aims to increase the per-student grant award from $2,841 to $3,500.

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