Robert Boyd, President and CEO, Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida
More than four decades ago, Florida created the Effective Access to Student Education (EASE) voucher to help Florida residents pay tuition at independent colleges and universities. It was intended to keep talented students in the state so that when they graduate, they are more likely to join Florida’s workforce. And it could be considered the first quest for school choice in the Sunshine State.
EASE is a student voucher for higher education that ensures students and families have a choice when it comes to their education and their future. Students who live in Florida are eligible for $3,500 per year to help them pay their tuition at one of the state’s 30 nonprofit, independent institutions for higher education.
With EASE, students can choose to pursue their college degree in a faith-based environment, where their family values are reinforced and supported. Or, they may choose to attend a private Historically Black College and University (HBCU) or Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). Many students depend on EASE to choose a university where classrooms have fewer students, enabling them to better focus and get the support they need. Other times, adult students depend on EASE to choose a school with a flexible schedule that enables them to balance the demands of school with their work and/or family responsibilities.
EASE is also essential to maintaining access to higher education for many underserved communities. Florida’s independent colleges and universities accept more low-income students than traditional public universities, and they produce higher starting salaries. Of the top seven higher education institutions in Florida based on graduates’ average starting salary, six of them are independent colleges and universities.
In the more than four decades since EASE was established, hundreds of thousands of Florida families have been able to attend college, earn their degree, launch a career and provide for their families with the help of this school voucher for higher education.
Today, there are more than 41,000 students in Florida per year who rely on the EASE voucher to help pay college tuition.
This program is critical to our state’s workforce. Labor shortages are felt across nearly every industry in Florida, and students at independent, nonprofit colleges and universities will soon be graduates who can fill jobs, especially those in high demand fields like nursing, education, engineering, and technology. In fact, nonprofit higher education institutions in Florida produce 25% of the state’s nursing graduates and 25% of the state’s teaching graduates.
Last year, Florida’s independent, nonprofit colleges and universities produced 3,600 nursing degrees, ranging from associate through doctoral degrees. These registered nurses and nurse practitioners are now a part of our state’s workforce. Some of them are professors ready to teach the generations of nurses that follow.
The EASE voucher even benefits the broader economy of the Sunshine State. The 30 independent, nonprofit colleges and universities of Florida that accept EASE vouchers support 100,900 jobs for Florida families. An economic impact study conducted in 2021 found that EASE creates more than 21,000 jobs each year and generates $3.5 billion economic impact on Florida.
Florida has made great gains in recent years to expand K-12 school choice. Because we work to ensure every family can make the best choice for their student when it comes to education, Florida has become a model for the nation. EASE, which expands choice in higher education, and breaks down barriers to access and strengthens our workforce, is an important component of our model.
As lawmakers begin to build the state budget for consideration during the 2024 legislative session, continued funding for EASE should be a high priority. It has a meaningful impact on education, our economy and our state.