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Not such a bright future
A lawsuit highlights a fierce tug of war over the state's popular scholarship program.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO- VAN SICKLER
Published July 21, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - For 10 years, the state's popular Bright Futures scholarship program has acted like a 5-ton anchor holding down tuition for public universities in Florida.
The lottery-funded program puts the state on the hook for tens of thousands of tuition bills each year, so lawmakers have resisted raising tuition by more than a few percentage points per year.
The result is that Florida's undergraduate tuition, about $2,200 a year for state residents, is among the nation's lowest.
State university officials say their institutions are flagging because of legislators' unwillingness to significantly raise tuition. Last week, the board created to oversee the 11 state universities got so fed up that members decided to sue the Legislature for the power to set tuition and fees.
The Board of Governors didn't discuss Bright Futures before voting to sue, but the merit scholarship program's downward pull on tuition is a key factor in the long-running power struggle between lawmakers and state university system leaders.
And both sides agree: The litigation's outcome could have a dramatic affect on the plan that Florida families love so much.
Senate President Ken Pruitt, the Port St. Lucie Republican who sponsored the legislation creating Bright Futures, is its most powerful defender. He's also very angry about the lawsuit.
"Mark my word: We are going to fight to make sure the American dream of higher education is affordable for all students," he said after the board's vote.
"My message to the Board of Governors? We'll see you in court."
Several key lawmakers warn that if members of the Board of Governors control tuition, they might raise it more than the state is willing or able to match with Bright Futures funding.
And that might lead to program cutbacks that won't sit well with families.
"I believe the Board of Governors has compromised the future of Bright Futures," said Rep. David Mealor, R-Lake Mary, who leads the House committee on college funding. "I don't think we know what the long-term implications are for Bright Futures. Those are the unintended consequences that, I think, we have to worry about."
Bright Futures is a merit scholarship program that covers 75 or 100 percent of a Florida high school graduate's in-state undergraduate tuition, as long as the student meets certain SAT and grade-point-average standards. The scholarship is good for four years if students maintain good grades.
The program cost about $350-million in lottery revenues last year and covered more than 146,000 students, up from $75-million for 42,000 students in its first year.
But even as some lawmakers issue doomsday warnings, education leaders see the lawsuit as a long-overdue impetus for making changes to Bright Futures.
The program has been criticized since its inception for providing scholarships regardless of financial need. For example, more than 95 percent of incoming University of Florida freshmen are on Bright Futures, and a 2004 survey found that the median annual income of all students' families was $100,000. Nearly a quarter of UF families reported incomes of more than $150,000.
Plant High School graduate Alyssa Hess, 20, is studying political science at the University of Central Florida near Orlando and plans to go to law school. Her sister Abby, 18, just started at Florida State University.
"That was a big reason for us staying in Florida," said Alyssa, who is home in Tampa for the summer. Even though her father earns a good living as an orthopedic surgeon, Alyssa said Bright Futures is important because it means she and her sister don't have to juggle classes with jobs.
"Most kids don't want to have to work through college. That's just really hard."
When lawmakers established Bright Futures in 1997, they modeled it on a similar program in Georgia. Florida legislators said it would boost the quality of the state university system by giving the smartest students incentive to get their bachelor's degrees in Florida rather than at an Ivy League school.
It also had political benefits. Bright Futures was a way for lawmakers to appease families who complained that they had no real proof that lottery revenues were enhancing public education in Florida.
But almost as soon as the program began, some lawmakers and education leaders worried that they had created an untenable monster.
The cost ballooned from $75-million the first year to $120-million the next as the program's popularity grew and thousands of high school graduates met the scholarship's arguably mediocre eligibility standards.
The 970 SAT score required for the partial Bright Futures scholarship is well below the national SAT average of 1021.
Charles Reed, university system chancellor when Bright Futures was established, called it "one of the dumbest public policies."
In 1998, some lawmakers tried but failed to pass legislation aimed at keeping costs down by raising the academic standards so that fewer students would qualify. Business leaders also suggested a $100,000-a-year income cutoff to weed out wealthier families, as well as using more lottery revenue for need-based aid.
But Bright Futures was already too popular to touch. Lawmakers left Bright Futures alone.
"It's an election year, and this is such a politically popular program," said then-Rep. Bill Sublette, R-Orlando.
Fast-forward to today, and Bright Futures is even more "politically popular." It has become a given in Tallahassee that you just don't mess with Bright Futures. Not if you want to get re-elected, anyway.
"Politically, Bright Futures is very difficult," said Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state university system.
"Bright Futures is important," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who oversees the Senate committee for university funding. "We've made a commitment and we have to honor that."
Lawmakers this spring did approve a tiered tuition plan that is not covered by Bright Futures.
It was the first time since Bright Futures' creation that legislators approved a tuition hike not tied to the scholarship. Rosenberg called it a significant sign that lawmakers might be ready to re-evaluate it.
But that was before the Board of Governors decided to sue.
Only time and the courts will tell how Bright Futures fares in the tuition struggle.
Rep. Mealor is less than encouraging.
"I don't think the Board of Governors won a lot of new friends in Tallahassee with that decision," he said.
"Our first responsibility is to the K-12 system. And if you have someone who's entered into an adversarial position against you, maybe you have to say, 'Well, let's prioritize by first taking care of the entity we know we can work with.' "
A lottery-funded merit scholarship program established in 1997. It covers full or partial in-state undergraduate college tuition and fees. Private college attendees can get Bright Futures, but only an amount equal to public college tuition.
Florida high school graduates, home schoolers and those with a GED who attend a Florida public or private university or community college and meet certain academic criteria.
What are the academic criteria?
For full tuition and fees at a public university, high school graduates must have a 3.5 GPA and 1270 SAT or 28 ACT scores. They also must graduate from high school with college prep courses such as algebra, science lab classes and foreign languages. For 75 percent tuition, high school graduates must have a 3.0 GPA and 970 SAT or 20 ACT scores. Students must graduate with the same college prep courses as full scholarship recipients.
When is the application period?
Students must apply during their last year of high school. Students may apply online at www.FloridaStudentFinancialAid.org beginning December 1st of their last year of high school.
Where can I get more information?
Go to www.floridastudentfinancialaid.org/ssfad/bf/ or call toll-free 1-888-827-2004.
Bright Futures by the Numbers
Average award amount in 2001-02 for 4-year college students
Average award amount in 2005-06 for 4-year college students.
Florida Bright Futures disbursements for the 1997-98 academic year.
Number of students who got the scholarship that year.
Florida Bright Futures Scholarship disbursements for the 2005-2006 academic year.
Number of students who got Bright Futures that year.