TALLAHASSEE — Calling the plan "punitive," leaders of Florida's private colleges and universities are crying foul about a House proposal that could link the amount of money students get from a state-backed grant program to their schools' performance.

The House plan is included in a bill (PCB HEA 22-01) aimed at implementing a proposed $8.9 billion higher-education budget.

Part of the bill that has generated controversy in preliminary House budget talks involves proposed changes to what are known as Effective Access to Student Education, or EASE, grants.

The nearly $114.9 million program essentially functions as a higher-ed voucher program, providing tuition assistance to full-time undergraduate students at private institutions.

Currently, the roughly 40,500 students who qualify for the grants receive $2,841 in tuition aid annually.

House Higher Education Appropriations Chairman Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, on Thursday briefed lawmakers on his panel about a proposed “tier-based structure” for issuing the grants. The structure would determine the amount of money students would receive based on how many of five “benchmarks” that institutions meet.

The benchmarks would serve as a ranking system for the institutions.

For instance, one benchmark would be met by a school having an “access rate” of 53 percent, based on the percentage of students who qualify for a need-based Pell grant. A graduation rate of 53 percent, a retention rate of 68 percent and a postgraduate employment rate of 51 percent are other benchmarks considered in the proposed formula.

“Institutions in Tier 1, meaning they meet all five benchmarks, will receive an incentivized award amount of $4,000 per student. Institutions in Tier 5, meaning they only meet one or none of the benchmarks, will not receive an award,” Plasencia explained.

The total increases and decreases in awards would result in a net reduction to the program of $6.8 million a year, he said.

Bob Boyd, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida association, said that the House plan could result in 6,421 students at nine private institutions getting their current grant amount cut in half or receiving no aid at all.

“These metrics will take money away from students and hurt students in the next school year. So, this is not taking money away from students after looking at data or doing some kind of phase-in. These are students who could drop out of their nursing program or teaching program starting in August,” Boyd told The News Service of Florida in an interview Friday.

Under the proposed system, students with exemplary academic standing could lose their tuition aid because of metrics imposed on their schools, Boyd said.

The plan comes at a time when the state is grappling with an ongoing shortage of nurses and teachers. Boyd said that 25 percent of all nursing and teaching degrees in Florida come from independent colleges and universities.

“So, if you need to produce more nurses, the last thing you should be doing is cutting EASE,” he said.

Florida Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Anna Grace Lewis spoke in opposition to the House plan during Thursday’s committee meeting.

“The Florida Chamber recognizes that ICUF universities play a very important role in our state, and we do acknowledge and share some of the concerns voiced today about the EASE grant,” she said.

Private institutions that serve a majority of minority students could also suffer adverse impacts.

Rep. Travaris McCurdy, D-Orlando, asked Plasencia if students at some of the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, could have their grants decreased. There are three such institutions in the ICUF system.

“With the HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), it’s no different than any of the other institutions. They’re going to be measured based on the same performance metrics, and they’ll have to compete based on those metrics,” Plasencia said.

Based on performance in the current academic year, students attending one of the HBCUs would see no change in funding under the House plan, while students at two others would get half of the funding they currently receive, Plasencia said.

The Senate, meanwhile, is mulling a plan to increase the EASE grant award amounts to $3,000 per student.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter for News Service of Florida. Javier Manjarres contributed to this story.