College Aid OK’d for Florida High School Dropouts

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would provide tuition and fee waivers for students who have dropped out of high school and pursue diplomas and workforce credentials at state colleges.

The measure (SB 7032), which needs House approval before it could go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, would establish the Graduation Alternative to Traditional Education, or GATE, program within the state Department of Education.

The program would waive “100 percent of the registration, tuition, laboratory, and examination” fees at state colleges and career centers and provide free instructional materials for students who participate. To be eligible, students who have left high school without diplomas would have to be 16 to 21 years old and would have to maintain at least 2.0 grade-point averages in career and technical education coursework.

Students who participate in the program would have to finish within three years of enrolling in colleges or career centers.

Bill sponsor Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, characterized the bill as a way to give second chances to high-school dropouts.

“Students who have withdrawn from high school have far fewer postsecondary and financial opportunities than a student with a high-school diploma. The GATE program creates an alternative education pathway that re-engages students, affirms the value of a high-school diploma, expands career opportunities and recognizes the need for a second chance at education,” Grall said before the measure passed Wednesday.

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Florida had an overall graduation rate of 87.3 percent during the 2021-2022 school year, the most recent data available from the Department of Education.

In addition to the larger GATE program, the bill also seeks to set up a GATE Scholarship Program that would reimburse colleges and career centers that participate. As of Wednesday, House and Senate higher-education budget negotiators had agreed to provide $7 million for the scholarship program, with an additional proposed $4 million for the overall GATE program.

The bill also would create what would be known as the GATE Startup Grant Program, aimed at supporting the launch of the program in rural areas, and the GATE Program Performance Fund, which would reward colleges with $1,000 for each student who finishes the program.

Passidomo last month touted the proposal.

“Thankfully, over the last several years we have seen a decrease in the number of teens who are not in school or working. However, Florida has a job for anyone who wants one and the earlier we can reach a teen who has left high school, the better chance that young person has to thrive in a meaningful career,” she said in a prepared statement.

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