0 down for two years of learning

Graduates who qualify for the Bright Futures Medallion award can get a free associate's degree.

Published July 1, 2006

Thousands of recent high school graduates in the Tampa Bay area will soon receive a letter advertising the chance for a free associate's degree if they will just call back.

Note to graduates: It's not junk mail.

In what state officials described as a significant shift in the state's most popular merit scholarship, high school graduates who qualify for the Bright Futures Medallion program can receive 100 percent of tuition and fees toward an associate's degree, which can later be applied toward a four-year college degree if they transfer.

The scholarship, which aided more than 100,000 Florida students in 2005, used to reimburse 75 percent of college costs, and students can still receive that rate to attend a four-year college.

But officials hope that more students will try the less-expensive community college route first, potentially saving the state millions on a rapidly growing program that might one day outspend the entire state lottery that funds it.

For 15-year-old Gregory Rhodes of Brooksville, the financial impact of the change hits close to home.

"It would be good for my parents," he said, describing the education loans and family assistance that he would otherwise incur. "I'd have to pay them back, which is something I really don't want to do."

Rhodes, a Hernando High sophomore studying computer science this summer at Pasco-Hernando Community College, said he would likely take advantage of the offer en route to earning a master's degree in the subject. It could save his family thousands at PHCC, where tuition costs $65 per credit hour.

Other students waiting for class Thursday at the college said they hadn't heard of the change.

"I wish I could have done that," said Chelsea Berkley, a junior at the University of South Florida, where tuition costs $107 to $244 per credit hour.

She said starting at a community college might be a good idea for some students.

"Especially if you're not disciplined," she said.

Just how many students might qualify for more scholarship money - and how to attract their midsummer attention - has been on the minds of community college officials since Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the latest change to the 9-year-old program.

Last year, at least 3,200 community college students in the Tampa Bay area received a Bright Futures Medallion award, college officials said.

If those students are still enrolled for an associate's degree this fall, they will qualify for the 100 percent funding.

But there are also thousands of new high school graduates who might not realize that community college has suddenly become more affordable.

Tapping into that group could quickly change the enrollment picture at area colleges, said John Huerta, vice president for external affairs at Hillsborough Community College.

St. Petersburg College plans a mass mailing to notify the 1,620 Pinellas County graduates who qualify for Bright Futures this year, said Marcia McConnell, director of scholarships and financial aid.

PHCC plans to mail at least 800 such letters, said Alfonsa James, dean of student development.

And Hillsborough officials will likely send letters to about 3,000 students who won the award, said Frances Otero, supervisor of career and postsecondary education for the county school district.

Boosting community college aid to 100 percent was the brainchild of state Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, who said it could help reverse a decline in the number of Bright Futures recipients attending community college.

In 1997, the Bright Futures program cost the lottery $75-million and counted 43,000 winners, including recipients of the Medallion, the Gold Seal vocational award and the more competitive Florida Academic Scholars award.

By 2005, that list had swelled to 130,000, and the program's cost was nearly $270-million.

"We can see the potential, sometime in the 2020s, when all the lottery money goes to Bright Futures," Pickens said.

To qualify for the scholarship, students must earn at least a 3.0 grade point average in high school and get a combined score of at least 970 on the SAT or 20 on the ACT.

Other information and eligibility requirements can be found on the Florida Department of Education Web site at www.firn.edu/doe/ brfutures or by calling toll-free 1-888-827-2004.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.