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    Bright Futures cuts tuition for too many, lawmakers say

    If academic standards are raised, thousands of students and parents counting on the scholarships won't get the money they expected.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 31, 2003


    Ashley Durant, a junior at the University of South Florida, works up to 20 hours a week at the mall and another 20 hours at school. She has a loan that provides her $1,500 a semester.

    And she has a Bright Futures scholarship that pays 75 percent of her tuition.

    Durant, 21, isn't sure how she or her younger brother, Ryan, a USF freshman, would pay for college without Bright Futures. Back in Jacksonville, her mom manages a school bookstore and her dad works as a sales representative for a copy store.

    "They couldn't have afforded for me to go to school without Bright Futures paying for some of it," she said.

    But now legislators are looking to cut the program, either by reducing the number of eligible students or capping the awards. The cost of Bright Futures is out of control, they say, and has become a luxury the state can no longer afford.

    The most likely change would raise the minimum grades and test scores required to qualify for a scholarship. Right now, students who maintain a B average in high school and score 970 on the SAT can earn an award that pays 75 percent of their tuition and fees.

    Florida's university presidents say those requirements are a joke. Bright Futures, they say, is supposed to reward academic achievement, not mediocrity.

    "That minimum criteria won't get you into the University of Florida, Florida State and most universities," FSU president T.K. Wetherell said. "How can you have a merit program that doesn't qualify you to get into college?"

    Any changes to Bright Futures probably won't affect students who already receive the lottery-backed scholarships, which are among the most generous in the nation. But they would be a blow to tens of thousands of high school students who are counting on the money to help pay their way through college.

    "This is the future of Florida," said Pablo Paez, chairman of the Florida Student Association and student body president at Florida Atlantic University. "If we are going to cut Bright Futures, I wonder where our priorities are?"

    Bleak prospects

    Students are doing what they can to save the scholarships. They have delivered 25,000 signed petitions to lawmakers. They marched on the Capitol in Tallahassee last month and again on campuses last week.

    But their prospects look bleak.

    The reason is cost. When Bright Futures began six years ago, 43,000 university and community college students received a total of $75-million. This year, 107,000 recipients are expected to receive $219-million.

    And the numbers keep going up.

    "What we need to do is get a better handle on how to control the cost of Bright Futures," said Rep. David Mealor, R-Lake Mary, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education. "We are trying to honor our commitment and, at the same time, address the financial dilemma we're facing."

    One sure way to cut costs is to toughen the academic requirements.

    "It is time we looked at raising the bar," said Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, a member of the House Higher Education Subcommittee. "Kids will work harder."

    But a recent report by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a government watchdog group, shows a higher bar will almost certainly reduce minority access to higher education.

    Since 1997, the number of black students receiving Bright Futures scholarships has increased by 132 percent. The number of Hispanic recipients has increased by 158 percent.

    But if the minimum SAT score is raised to 1050, as some Republican legislators are suggesting, the number of black recipients could drop by as much as 55 percent, OPPAGA says. The number of Hispanic recipients could drop by 46 percent.

    "By changing it, you are limiting access to Florida universities," Senate Democratic Leader Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, said.

    Don Sullivan, a former state senator from St. Petersburg who sponsored the legislation that created Bright Futures, said the SAT requirement was set at 970 to gain the votes of minority lawmakers.

    They wanted to make sure that poor and minority students, who tend to score lower on standardized tests, would not be excluded from the program, Sullivan said.

    Sen. Les Miller, a Tampa Democrat who has been critical of changing Bright Futures, said he has "nothing against students with excellent scores and GPAs."

    "But we have students that maybe don't do as well," said Miller, chairman of the Legislature's Black Caucus. "They should be able to afford to go to college, too."

    The options

    Several proposals to rein in Bright Futures are floating around the Legislature. Most target the least rigorous of the scholarships -- the Florida Medallion Scholars Award, which pays 75 percent of a student's tuition.

    Almost 80,000 students received a Medallion award this year. Critics say that number -- or the money for each award -- needs to come down.

    The university presidents want to cut the Medallion awards to $1,500 a year per student, or about 25 percent lower than this year's $2,018. They also want to cap the total amount the state spends annually on Bright Futures.

    The state Board of Education is pushing a new formula that would pay about 50 percent of tuition costs rather than the current 75 percent. That would save the state about $35-million if the changes begin two years from now, and about $60-million in 2006-07.

    A bill in the state House would raise the minimum SAT score, cutting the number of scholarships by 34,000. Several Senate leaders, however, don't want to make any changes, setting up a likely showdown before the legislative session concludes.

    And there is yet another complication: the ongoing debate over the proper balance between need- and merit-based financial aid.

    Some critics of Bright Futures would rather increase funding for need-based scholarships, where Florida ranks low nationally. Democratic lawmakers have proposed spending an additional $60-million in that category next year.

    It's difficult to determine how many Bright Futures recipients need the scholarship to afford college. Half of them don't fill out financial aid forms. Of the 54 percent who did in 2001-02, almost all had family incomes of less than $30,000.

    Education Commissioner Jim Horne said he expects some kind of compromise.

    "Something will happen," he said. "I'm just excited that we got the debate on stage this year."

    -- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Anita Kumar covers higher education and can be reached at kumar@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

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