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    Bill pushes higher scores to qualify for Bright Futures

    Legislators want to control the scholarship program's escalating cost.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Last fall, a new crop of nearly 55,000 students earned a Bright Futures merit award, a scholarship rewarding them for good work in high school.

    Nearly half of them wouldn't have qualified under tougher guidelines now being considered by the Legislature. Minority students would lose out most of all.

    Hoping to control the cost of the popular Bright Futures program, the state House is moving forward with a plan to toughen eligibility requirements for the scholarships, as well as other changes. The legislation passed its first test on Tuesday in the House Committee on Colleges and Universities.

    Whether the legislation survives the full House and Senate is uncertain. Even the sponsor, state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, was making no predictions Tuesday. Key senators, including Senate Education Committee Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, are opposed to changing Bright Futures.

    Messing with Bright Futures is a tough political proposition, because reducing the awards would irritate a middle class constituency important to many politicians. Bright Futures is based on merit, rather than need, so the program offers a way for families too affluent for need-based aid to get help paying for college. In four years, it has blossomed into the largest financial aid program in Florida, and is expected to cost some $200-million next budget year.

    Under legislation approved in the colleges and universities committee Tuesday, students entering ninth grade beginning next school year would need a score of 1,100 on the SAT -- up from 970 -- to initially qualify for the merit scholars award, which has traditionally covered 75 percent of tuition and fees at a public university. The SAT score required for the Florida Academic Scholars award, which covers all tuition, fees and allows $600 for college expenses, would remain at 1,270. In addition, the legislation would fix the amount of Bright Futures awards, rather than tie the award to the actual cost.

    Beginning in 2005-06, the Florida Academic Scholars Award would be fixed at $120 per credit hour, for up to 132 hours. The merit scholars award would be fixed at $75 per credit hour, with a cap at 132 credit hours.

    A legislative analysis of information from the Department of Education concluded black and Hispanic students would be hurt most by raising the SAT score for the merit scholars award to 1,100.

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    From the Times state desk