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    Who benefits? Lawmakers question college aid program

    Some say the costly Bright Futures scholarship program is not helping those truly in need.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- In four years, the Bright Futures scholarship program has mushroomed into the largest financial aid program in Florida, offering thousands of students a full ride to college or a break in tuition if they get good grades in high school.

    Today, fear is rising that Bright Futures has spun out of control, soaking up cash to send largely white, middle class kids to college.

    In a new study, state education experts say the program has diverted Florida from its commitment -- required in state law -- to help truly needy students get a college education.

    With state finances tighter this year, some lawmakers say Bright Futures should be cut back. The most obvious way: raising eligibility requirements.

    "I just regret that we didn't set the standards higher," said state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, a chief architect of the Bright Futures program in 1997 and chairman of the Senate's education budget committee.

    The scholarship program is expected to cost nearly $200-million next school year, up from $75-million in 1997-98. The program now serves 83,186 students, up from 43,309 in 1997-98.

    The SAT score required to get a Bright Futures Merit Scholars award, the most popular of the three scholarships offered in the program, is 970. That's lower than Florida's average SAT score, 998, Sullivan points out, and considerably lower than the national average of 1019.

    "I think it is much more reasonable to provide the scholarship in future years to those who meet the national average on the SAT test," Sullivan said.

    In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on Monday, Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney said Florida may want to consider giving full Bright Futures scholarships only to students who get into professions in which there are shortages, such as teaching or nursing.

    Other students would get smaller scholarships, perhaps 70 percent of what they get now, Feeney said. Currently, the scholarship amounts vary, depending on the type of the award, but they generally cover between 75 percent and 100 percent of tuition, and fees at state universities, community colleges, private colleges or vocational institutes.

    "If taxpayers are going to subsidize 100 percent of your education, maybe we have the legitimate right to say, gosh, there are some areas where we have a shortage," Feeney said. The state could require students who get the full scholarships to stay in Florida for one or two years after they graduate, Feeney said.

    The Postsecondary Education Planning Commission (PEPC), which advises the Department of Education and the Legislature on education policy, also is weighing in, recommending in a new study that the high school grade point average required for the Bright Futures Merit Scholars award be increased from 3.0 to 3.25.

    The commission also is recommending that Bright Futures scholarship amounts not be tied to the cost of tuition and fees. Now, every time the Legislature increases tuition, the Bright Scholarship amounts go up.

    But changing Bright Futures scholarships is a tough political proposition. Reducing the awards would irritate a middle-class constituency important to many politicians.

    A PEPC analysis of 1998-99 Bright Futures scholarships showed that nearly 77 percent of the scholarships went to white students that year, and about 63 percent of the awards went to students from families earning at least $40,000 a year. In addition, 11.5 percent of the scholarships went to kids in families earning at least $100,000 a year.

    "Others have used the term middle-class welfare to describe similar proposals," Feeney said.

    In its new study, just now being completed, PEPC points out that state law requires that financial aid in Florida be provided primarily on the basis of need.

    But with the rise of Bright Futures, which is based on merit rather than financial need, the state has veered from that requirement. Of the $425-million spent on financial aid programs this year, only $114.3-million, or about 27 percent, was on need-based programs.

    Bright Futures, which had a budget of $143.1-million, was among several "non-need" based programs that made up the rest of the financial aid budget. Officials had to add another $27.8-million to this year's Bright Futures pot because projections were off.

    Gov. Jeb Bush has recommended $197.1-million for Bright Futures next school year.

    Sullivan said he wishes he could use some of that money on other public school needs. "The education budget is going to be very, very tight, and there will be a whole series of programs likely to be cut and the only place to find any money is in Bright Futures," Sullivan said. He said he plans to appoint a select committee from among the members of the Senate education budget committee to look at increasing need-based financial aid.

    "I think we've gotten out of balance on how much money we're putting into Bright Futures," Sullivan said.

    New Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, a former state senator from Pinellas, is against changing Bright Futures. He said the Legislature made a commitment in 1997 to fund the program with proceeds from the state lottery.

    "I think we need to maintain and honor the commitment that we originally made," Crist said.

    Gov. Bush wants to look at all recommendations before decided whether he should approve a change in Bright Futures, said spokeswoman Liz Hirst. But he does feel strongly about need-based financial aid.

    "The governor is committed to making higher education available to all students of Florida, that's why we have seen dramatic increases in need-based financial aid," Hirst said.

    The PEPC study revealed that while need-based financial aid programs have increased by 71 percent since 1995-96, merit-based financial aid, such as Bright Futures, has increased by 177 percent.

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