Expand school choice in Florida to universities and colleges by expanding EASE grants

Many conservative politicians throughout the United States see educational choice as both a right and a solution to the challenges parents and students face. They believe in providing parents with opportunities to send their children to a school of their choice — one that is smaller, more focused, more religious or different from the one-size-fits-all public school.

In Florida, this reasoning has become a clarion call to the Republican Legislature, which wants to provide vouchers to students to attend the K-12 school of their choice, whether it be charter, private, religious or special needs. Some Democrats have argued against this choice and call for students to continue their free education benefits through the public school system, community colleges and beyond, many of which have failed Florida students and families.

While Republicans have made it their focus to provide educational choice at the K-12 level, it is equally important to ensure choice exists in higher education. Our state universities play a vital role in the development of Florida and its future workforce and deserve continued support from legislators and taxpayers. However, the Legislature should recognize that choice is not only good for K-12 education but post-secondary education as well.

One way to do this is through the Effective Access to Student Education (EASE) grant, specially designed to support Florida residents who attend one of the 30 Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida (ICUF). Like the state voucher system that provides K-12 students an opportunity to attend a school of their choice, EASE provides Florida college students an opportunity to choose a university that best suits them.

However, the current grant provides only about one half of what it provided three years ago. Meanwhile, the cost of higher education, as well as the cost of living, have significantly increased.

The Florida Council of 100’s recent workforce study found that in the next 20 years the state will need 30,000 additional post-secondary classroom seats. This extraordinary growth can be a benefit to the state as our economy grows and our need for an educated workforce expands.

ICUF institutions can help meet this expansion while providing choice to students who want smaller classes and unique experiences. ICUF schools offer an incredible range of programs and experiences and include traditional liberal arts universities, historically Black colleges, religiously affiliated colleges, research-oriented universities and institutions that focus on workforce preparation. The ICUF schools offer highly ranked academic programs in space technology, medicine, nursing, teaching and other careers in many of Florida’s targeted industries. In the Miami area, ICUF schools include Barry University, St. Thomas University, Florida Memorial University, Nova Southeastern University, the University of Miami and my institution, Keiser University.

ICUF schools have contributed tremendously to Florida’s workforce, with limited state and federal funding, many without raising tuition.

Some try to compare the cost of private higher education to a public one. However, many people, including some well-meaning politicians, do not recognize that state governments and federal subsidies severely discount the cost of education at these state institutions. They believe that the tuition students pay at state universities is the cost of college. However, most are unaware of the true cost — the billions of dollars spent on public universities and colleges over and above the cost of tuition.

To allow Florida’s college students more choice in higher education, the Legislature should consider making the EASE grant comparable to the state voucher proposed for K-12 students. This would encourage more students to make the decision to attend an institution that is right for them. A college education, whether public or private, is expensive. Consequently, students must choose the right one to meet their needs.

Arthur Keiser, Ph.D., is the chancellor of Keiser University, Florida’s largest private, not-for-profit university.