Florida bill would give college aid to people who have dropped out of high school

Colleges and career centers would be required to waive 100 percent of registration, tuition, laboratory and exam fees

A bill that would allow people who have dropped out of high school to get tuition waivers to pursue diplomas and workforce credentials at Florida colleges got unanimous backing Wednesday from a key House committee.

But some members of the House Education & Employment Committee raised concerns and questioned whether, as one Republican put it, the bill would give high school drop-outs a “better deal” than students who graduate.

The bill (HB 7051) would create the Graduation Alternative to Traditional Education, or GATE, program, which would be administered by the state Department of Education. The program would be available to people ages 16 to 21 who have dropped out of high school.

Colleges and career centers would be required to waive 100 percent of registration, tuition, laboratory and exam fees for people who enroll through the GATE program after other federal and state aid are applied.

Students in the GATE program would have to maintain at least 2.0 grade-point averages in career and technical education coursework and complete their education programs within three years.
“Why are students leaving high school without their diploma or GED? How does Florida re-engage and serve this population so that they may gain the education and training they need to support themselves and their families?” bill sponsor Lauren Melo, R-Naples, said.

Melo, who is chairwoman of the House Postsecondary Education and Workforce Subcommittee, faced questions Wednesday from Republican and Democratic lawmakers members about the bill.

“If I understand it right, if you drop out of school, you can then go to a Florida college system, one of our what we used to call community colleges, for free,” Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, asked. “Am I reading that right, or am I missing something?”

“If they do quit school, it works out to a few thousand dollars bottom line. But yes, we would pay for them to get their alternative high school diploma and certifications,” Melo replied, in part.

“But if I don’t drop out of high school and then I want to go to a Florida college system institution, I have to pay to go,” Fine said. “This bill doesn’t change that?”

Melo pointed to Florida providing the “lowest in-state tuition rate” and said the proposed GATE program would not provide the full range of offerings that other students could pursue at colleges.

“All this provides is a high school diploma and it provides certifications. This does not provide a four-year degree,” Melo said.

Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Pompano Beach, continued the line of questioning.

“If I drop out of high school, I can attend this program free of charge. If I come with a high-school diploma in hand, I have to pay for my secondary education,” Williams said. “Yes or no?”

“I don’t think it’s a yes or no answer. Yes, you are correct, but we also have many programs that pay for students’ tuition,” Melo replied.

Melo pointed as an example to the state’s Open Door Grant program, which can cover 100 percent of the costs of workforce education programs at colleges and career centers for high-school graduates.

The bill also would create a GATE scholarship program, which would reimburse colleges and career centers that participate in the larger GATE program. The measure also would create a grant program aimed at increasing access to the overarching program for people in rural areas.

Fine, though he voted for the measure, said he remained concerned about it.

“I believe that if someone drops out of high school, sure we should help them, but we shouldn’t give them a better deal than the person who doesn’t,” Fine said.

With the approval of the Education & Employment committee, the bill is ready for consideration by the full House.

A similar bill (SB 7032) needs approval from the Senate Appropriations Committee before it could be considered by the full Senate.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, backed the proposal last month.

“Everyone who wants to work hard has the opportunity to prosper in the free state of Florida. It is important that we have resources in place to help young people, who have made the decision to leave a traditional high school, re-engage in work and educational opportunities and build careers that are needed in our growing communities,” Passidomo said in a prepared statement.
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