Unpopular decisions on Bright Futures

Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 11:36 p.m.

Writing about the Bright Futures scholarship program invites cliches. Do I write that prospects for Bright Futures are dim or murky?

Let's just skip trying to be clever and explain it plainly: Students will no longer be able to count on Bright Futures for a free ride to the University of Florida and other institutions.

Last year, the Legislature made the most significant changes to the program since it started in 1997. They include requiring students to pay for courses they drop, which at UF in the fall caused a 30 percent reduction in the number of credit hours dropped by scholarship recipients.

Lawmakers also capped scholarship amounts, forcing students to pay new costs out of pocket. With universities also getting new powers to raise tuition up to 15 percent annually, those costs will rise each year.

Something even more significant may be on the horizon. Earlier this month, the influential Council of 100 business group called for raising standards for the scholarships and directing saved money to need-based aid.

Both current Gov. Charlie Crist and former Gov. Jeb Bush attended a press conference to back the plan and other education reforms. Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, is one of many voices who had previously expressed their support for the idea.

"I'm much more in favor of a need-based scholarship fund," he said this week.

Oelrich, chairman of the Senate higher education committee, said he supports a phased reduction in program benefits for students from higher-income families. Benefits might eventually be paid on a sliding scale, he said, with low-income students qualifying for the highest benefits.

"I don't know how long it would be sustainable to keep it at its present rate," he said.

Oelrich said UF shows the need for changes. The university's high admission standards mean about 95 percent of freshmen qualify for the scholarships.

Yet the median family income of UF freshman is more than $100,000, suggesting many families could afford to pay tuition without help.

UF officials have long supported modifying the program because it kept tuition artificially low. Now UF President Bernie Machen is calling for a blue-ribbon commission to recommend more changes.

The commission would serve a similar purpose as a panel endorsed by President Obama as a way to reduce the deficit. Both groups would remove the tough decisions from lawmakers who are facing re-election and unwilling to cut popular programs.

Oelrich said he gets angry letters from parents when he suggests changes to Bright Futures. But with the lingering recession limiting budget options, he said the program's rising costs mean lawmakers must address the issue.

"This is very unpopular," he said. "But on the same token, times are tough."

Read the blog at chalkboard.blogs.gainesville.com. Get updates at twitter.com/nathancrabbe.

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