By JEROME R. STOCKFISCH | Tribune staff
Published: February 11, 2013
TAMPA –It’s not a situation college students like to envision: Life without their Bright Futures scholarship. Or getting by with a lesser version of it.”I’d have to work more,” said Kadene George, a junior chemical engineering major at the University of South Florida.”I’d have to take out student loans in order to continue going here,” said Kyle Santilli, a sophomore in architecture also at USF.But changes are coming to the popular program, and economists and some lawmakers are suggesting additional revisions, from moderate to dramatic, that could make it even more difficult to earn one of the awards.”The long-term sustainability of Bright Futures is in question,” said state Sen. John Legg, a Republican from Lutz, chairman of his chamber’s education committee and a member of the education appropriations subcommittee. “When you look at the revenue streams, the number of students that are on it and the cost of tuition, it looks like the system can’t sustain itself.”One change that will take effect for high school seniors this fall is that applicants for the Florida Academic Scholars award, the high-end Bright Futures scholarship, will have to achieve an SAT score of 1280, up from 1270, to be eligible. The ACT threshold of 28 doesn’t change. The following school year, the SAT threshold jumps to 1290, and the ACT threshold bumps to 29.Applicants for the Florida Medallion Scholar award will see an SAT threshold of 1020 this fall, up from 980, and the ACT minimum is 22, up from 21. The next year, the threshold jumps to 1170 for the SAT and 26 for the ACT.Legislative analyses did not indicate how many students that would affect.Legg said the Legislature isn’t likely to make any further changes in the session that begins March 5, “but that’s not to say that the groundwork won’t be laid to look at the long-term viability of Bright Futures.”The scholarship program was formed by the Legislature in 1997 out of a pair of existing financial aid programs. The idea was to use Florida Lottery revenue for a merit-based scholarship that had two main components: Academic Scholars, a full-ride 100 percent scholarship for the highest-achieving students; and Medallion Scholars, 75 percent of tuition for high performing students who could not quite meet the high standards of the Academic Scholars.There were also awards for vocational programs and super-achievers.It was an immediate smash. Florida has given out $3.9 billion in scholarship money to 1.9 million students.The problem? Scholarship payouts are growing by an average of 13 percent a year. The lottery pool that backs up Bright Futures, meanwhile, has been growing by about 4.1 percent a year.And those are averages. In a down economy, fewer people play the lottery. The lottery pot, known as the Florida Education Enhancement Trust Fund, has fallen every year since the financial crisis and recession in 2007.After its inception, Bright Futures represented about 9 percent of the Education Enhancement Trust Fund. It now represents more than 25 percent – squeezing other projects fed by the fund, from the Classrooms First K-12 construction program to seed money for the USF Heart Institute.”If there is not enough money to go around, then the question arises: Do you give everyone who is a recipient less money, or do you give adequate money, but to fewer people?” said Bob Sanchez, policy director at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee. “If it’s going to be fewer people, how do you decide who gets it and who doesn’t?”The Legislature has tackled this dilemma several times. In 2009, the state switched from the fixed percentage of tuition and fees to a per-credit-hour limit for each award type. That year, it was $126 per credit hour for Academic Scholars and $95 for Medallion Scholars. The figure has since dropped to $100 and $75, and the average award amount is about $2,000 per student per year.In 2011, it set the new test score thresholds, gradually increasing them through 2013-14.The James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based free-market think tank, released an extensive evaluation of Bright Futures last year. It concluded that the Legislature should reinstate the Academic Scholar award to its original state – 100 percent of tuition covered – to stop devaluing the reward for the highest achievers. But in a tradeoff, those scholarship winners would have to post a 3.3 grade point average, up from the current 3.0.And the institute recommends eliminating first-year funding within the Medallion Scholar program, pointing to a high level of scholarship money that goes to students who don’t complete their university education. Medallion students would also have to achieve a 3.25 GPA, up from the current 3.0.Meanwhile, Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit public policy research institute also in Tallahassee, has another idea. In its report and recommendations to the Legislature for the upcoming fiscal year, TaxWatch recommends that instead of giving a Bright Futures scholarship to anyone achieving a certain grade point average, give it to those in a certain percentile of graduates.Currently, just more than 27 percent of high school graduates are eligible for an award. Limiting awards to the top 25 percent of students would save the state $7.5 million; to the top 20 percent would save $23.5 million; to the top 15 percent would save $39.4 million; and the top 10 percent would save the state $55.4 million, according to TaxWatch.”We’re focusing on the people the program was originally intended to focus on – the top students in their class,” said Robert Weissert, vice president for research and general counsel at TaxWatch. “The program has been generally successful and it is certainly popular. The question is, can we do better?”Bright Futures recipients concur that program has been successful and popular. But they add another description: Vital.”It’s very important,” said Anna Penton, a sophomore in civil engineering at USF. “I know there are plenty of students that if they didn’t have Bright Futures, they wouldn’t be going to college.”To see online story visit: