Lawmakers, facing deficit, look at Bright Futures tweaks
The state has spent nearly $3 billion in Lottery revenues for the popular Bright Futures merit scholarship program since it started in fall 1997. That's the size of the budget deficit lawmakers are facing for the 2010-11 budget year.
So legislators crafting next year's higher education budget are seriously considering changes -- some of them significant and controversial -- to the program, in an effort to save tens of millions of dollars.
Among the options outlined during a meeting of the Senate higher education budget committee this morning: Raise the required SAT and ACT scores and GPAs to qualify (saving as much as $20-million) -- a move that's been batted down for many years because it would shut out a significant number of minorities. Lawmakers also could eliminate from participation any students whose families exceed a certain income threshold so that upper-income families aren't getting a free ride they don't financially need. (That would affect a lot of UF students, given that most of them get Bright Futures and most of them come from families bringing in 100K or more a year.)
Jane Fletcher of OPPAGA also said lawmakers could save as much as $33 million a year by reducing the maximum number of credit hours covered for students who come in with, say, 30 hours' worth of high school AP credits. And they could eliminate the ability of students who lose Bright Futures because of poor college grades to get the scholarship back (saving at least $4 million).
But given that Bright Futures is such a sacred political cow, the real question is how far lawmakers are willing to go in an election year.
"There seems to be a desire to do something," said budget chairwoman Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. "I don't think we have consensus yet on which ones, but we need to do something."
Parents and students have come to depend on it, and until the past few years, legislators were loathe to mess with it -- in spite of long-running concerns about mediocre academic standards for eligibility, and resulting rising costs to the state.
Lawmakers in the past few years have started to tweak the program -- passing bills that kept the award amount flat even as tuition rose, and requiring students to pay back any Bright Futures-covered classes that they drop late in the semester.
"Any change we make, we have to look at how it would affect students, and above all will it still encourage students to go to college in Florida, which was always the aim?" Lynn said. "We'll have to see if people are willing to do what's best for students and for the state ...or are they going to play politics?"