The Bright Futures quandary persists
Published: Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 29, 2012 at 8:02 p.m.
It's a debate as old as the program itself: whether the state's Bright Futures scholarships should be based on merit or need.
As demand for the program has risen over its 15-year history, it has become politically radioactive to try to change the scholarships from being awarded based on high school grades and test scores. But the program's growth has led to rising standards and scholarship cuts.
Florida House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said at a college access summit in May that the program should be reformed even though that is "heresy" to his party. Growing demand and shrinking revenue will keep cutting into scholarship amounts, he said.
"So we can either make it a number that gets so small that it becomes insignificant to everybody who gets it, or we can target it to the people who need it the most," he said.
New data show that the scholarships benefit students from families at both ends of the income spectrum. More than 31 percent of Bright Futures recipients in the 2011-12 academic year reported family or personal incomes above $100,000, according to Florida Department of Education figures.
The flip side of those numbers is that 40 percent of recipients reported incomes of $50,000 or less. The program might be changed to provide expanded scholarships for students in need while capping the amounts for those at the highest end of the income scale, said Braulio Colón, executive director of the Florida College Access Network.
"They earned the scholarships, that's for sure, but should they be receiving a maximum award at the expense of other students who achieved the same level academically but just have a greater need?" he said.
Colón said he sees Weatherford's comments, made at a summit sponsored by his group, as showing growing political will for basing the program on need as well as merit. But that idea doesn't appeal to Frank Brogan, who helped develop the program as state education commissioner and is now chancellor of the state university system.
"I still believe that what makes Bright Futures different from any other program regarding financial support for students is the merit-based component," he said.
Students in need benefit from other support, he said, such as the requirement that 30 percent of university tuition increases be spent on need-based financial aid. Bright Futures originally was intended to make state universities too attractive for the state's brightest students to attend schools out of state — and it continues to achieve that goal, he said.
When Bright Futures was started in 1997, the program received $75 million in Florida Lottery revenue, according to a study done for the James Madison Institute, a free-market think tank in Tallahassee.
As the number of students receiving scholarships grew to 1.5 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year, the program's costs reached $324.9 million, the study found.
The two levels of state university scholarships were changed in 2009 from covering 75 percent or 100 percent of tuition to paying a flat amount that funds a declining share of tuition as tuition rates rise. Standards for the program also have been increased.
University of Florida adjunct economics lecturer Colin Knapp, who conducted the James Madison Institute study, supports boosting those standards further. His study proposes doing so as a way of increasing the scholarship levels to cover more college costs for the highest-achieving students.
He said it also would free up money to fund programs for students in financial need.
"Bright Futures is trying to be two things at once, and it fails at both," he said.
State Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-The Villages, has overseen a tightening of program standards as chairwoman of House Higher Education Appropriations Committee. She backed a requirement that all students receiving the award fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which provided the income data on recipients.
The data will help decide whether the program should be based on need, merit or both, she said. She said her goal in tightening standards is ensuring that students receiving the scholarships are prepared to finish college in a timely manner.
"My overall goal isn't about whether you've got money or you don't. I'm not into redistribution of any kind," she said.
At UF, where most undergraduates qualify for the scholarships, some students are resistant to changes to the program.
Freshman public relations major Annaleigh Bonds, 18, said Bright Futures was one of the reasons she went to UF rather than an out-of-state school.
Freshman mechanical engineering major Michael Savage, 19, said he thinks it's "rubbish" to factor the need of recipients into the program.
"It doesn't matter what your income is — if you earned it, you should get it," he said.
Contact staff reporter Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.thecampussun.com for more stories on the University of Florida.