TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor City Campus. DeSantis signed a law updating eligibility requirements for the state’s Bright Futures scholarship, allowing work hours to count in place of community service for students who work jobs while in school.

Referring to the bills presented after the 2022 legislative session, DeSantis said it “felt like” the state’s lawmakers had given him more bills to look over this year than before. Then he introduced the gathered officials before discussing the bill he’d be signing.

DeSantis was joined by Lt. Governor Jeanette Nuñez, new Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., and current Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby), among others. He also thanked the crowd for wishing First Lady Casey DeSantis a happy birthday, and said he’d taken her to see Top Gun: Maverick, which the governor said she’d enjoyed.

“We have the number one ranked public university and state college system in the United States, and that’s been true, by U.S. News and World Report for five straight years,” DeSantis said, saying that as a Florida native, that had not always been the case, and saying new policies had helped push its success in education forward. “We’ve had a lot of people volunteer their time to serve on these boards to make sure these institutions were providing high quality education.”

The governor said Florida residents should have access to high quality higher education, affordable higher education, in the state. He referenced how since his taking office as governor, tuition in Florida had not been increased.

“There aren’t many places you can go where you can get a credible four-year degree and pay $6,000, $6,800 for tuition. That’s just not even in the realm of possibility in any other place,” DeSantis said about the state’s public education system. “I’m a big believer in higher education but I’m not a believer in plunging people $150,000 into debt with a degree in zombie studies. That is not a pathway to success.”

DeSantis said attainable, affordable education that won’t give students a “millstone of debt” was a priority for the state. He repeated previous commentary on how a four-year college degree was not the only educational path to success, again supporting vocational education and workforce training for debt-free alternatives for careers and futures.

“We have done over $5 billion to expand workforce opportunities since I’ve been governor,” DeSantis said. “Our goal was to be by 2030, the number one state for workforce education in the country.”

He said when he first became governor, Florida was in the bottom half and was now “shooting up in the rankings” among U.S. states for workforce education.

DeSantis said the bill he’d be signing in Ybor would have a big impact on career and degree pursuits, particularly “in conjunction with our state colleges.” According to the governor, there would be 120,000 students who will receive Bright Futures scholarships this school year.

“One of the problems is, if you look at what the criteria is to qualify for Bright Futures, yes you gotta have a certain weighted grade point average and certain test scores, whether your FAS or medallion, a little bit higher if you’re FAS, a little bit lower if you’re medallion,” DeSantis said. “But what you also have to do is community service or volunteer hours. Which in and of itself is a positive thing.”

DeSantis said he wanted students to be productive citizens but not all students have “the luxury” of being able to do those hours, particularly students in low-income families.

Those students “need to work to help their families, and those students should not be denied the opportunity to qualify for a scholarship just because their socioeconomic background makes it more difficult to do this type of volunteer work,” DeSantis said. He said hours working to support their families should count toward Bright Futures eligibility. “What we don’t want is to take a scholarship and make it out of reach for a student just because of their family circumstance.”

Bright Futures is not an income-based program, and DeSantis said that while tuition may not be as big a burden for some more well-off families, House Bill 461, the bill he’d be signing, would make changes to the scholarship program to make work hours count toward eligibility of Bright Futures.

The lieutenant governor and senate president both praised the passage and signing of the bill, which would provide more opportunities for students with different circumstances. Simpson said using work as leverage for eligibility was good for Florida’s students, while Nuñez praised Florida as both the “Free State” and “Education State.”

Students present at the event thanked state leaders for helping provide this educational opportunity, expressing excitement to go to college.

After signing the bill, DeSantis mingled with the crowd, there was no question and answer session.