Boosting Black Enrollment Aim of Florida’s First-Generation Grants

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.

Florida students whose parents do not have four-year college degrees could get need-based financial aid under a $6.5 million scholarship program recently signed into law. 

Although students of any race can apply, lawmakers hope it will increase minority enrollment at Florida universities.

The Legislature passed the First Generation Matching Grant Program after Black enrollment declined last year at the state’s 11 public universities. Supporters say a disproportionate number of minority high school graduates cannot afford college.

Gov. Jeb Bush signed the bill into law during a ceremony at Florida A&M University, where students had worked with his office to help craft the legislation sponsored by Sen. Al. Lawson, D-Tallahassee.

Bush earlier in the week signed another bill that would create a similar program for community college students at a cost of $5 million.

“The work we’ve done thus far is good, but it is not by any means enough,” says FAMU graduate student Keneshia Grant. “Need-based aid must continue to increase every year.”

Grant spearheaded student support as a member of Bush’s Access and Diversity Commission.

The amount of each scholarship cannot exceed the annual cost of attendance, which averages $15,000 per year including tuition, fees, books, supplies, room, board and incidental living expenses, says Bill Edmonds, a spokesman for the state’s university system. Awards would be based on the how much a student needs after applying any other scholarships or grants.

Lawson praised Bush for seeking the legislation in his public remarks, but he later said the drop in Black enrollment was due at least in part to the governor’s decision to prohibit affirmative action in university admissions six years ago.

Lawson says affirmative action opponents nationally have claimed eliminating race-based admissions criteria would not reduce minority enrollment.

“But clearly we see a change, not only in Florida but throughout America,” he says.

Bush replaced affirmative action with his One Florida plan. It includes the Talented 20 program, guaranteeing spots at state universities to the top 20 percent of the senior class at every Florida high school.

The governor denied his policy is responsible for the drop in Black enrollment.

“There was a decline because the number of out-of-state students, particularly attending FAMU but also some of the other universities, declined,” Bush said. “So systemwide there was a small decline.”

He said he remains convinced Black enrollment can be increased through such means as improving high school graduation rates, expanding advanced placement programs in high schools and offering more need-based scholarships.

“We don’t have to use set-asides or quotas that are constitutionally suspect to achieve that objective,” Bush said.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 upheld a general affirmative action policy at the University of Michigan but stuck down its undergraduate formula as too rigid because it awarded race-based admission points.

The Florida House of Representatives at one point amended the first generation bill to also let illegal immigrants pay cheaper in-state tuition if they had lived in Florida at least three years. The Senate, though, removed that provision.

— Associated Press



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