FORT LAUDERDALE — Many college students are receiving an unwelcome surprise during their holiday break: a bill for classes they didn't finish.
A new state law requires students with Bright Futures scholarships to repay their award money if they withdraw from a class after the drop-and-add period — typically about a week into the four-month semester.
While colleges said they sent notices to students warning them about the change, students and families still might get some sticker shock, with bills up to $378 for a typical three-credit-hour class.
The change could leave some struggling students in a dilemma, said Boris Bastidas, a sophomore at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
"It's like you're being forced to fail," said Bastidas, 20, of Tamarac. "If you withdraw after drop/add, you've got to pay the money back. If you stay in the class, you may get a bad grade that will hurt your GPA."
The change is part of the Legislature's recent overhaul of the Bright Futures merit scholarship, funded by Florida Lottery dollars. Bright Futures used to pay 100 percent of public university tuition and fees for students with an A average, high test scores and community service. B students were offered a 75 percent scholarship. Now, the scholarship pays a fixed amount.
While the primary purpose of the dropped-class payback is to help the state recoup an estimated $32 million in tuition for these courses, colleges say there are other benefits. Fewer students are dropping courses, which could improve graduation rates and course availability. Students now must be more careful about which classes they select, said Joe Glover, provost for the University of Florida.
"We try to put out enough classes for students at the beginning of the semester, and sometimes it's a struggle to do that," Glover said. "Then you arrive at the end of the semester, and sometimes you find a lot of empty seats. Quite honestly, that's a frustrating experience."
Dropping courses also can hurt a student's ability to graduate on time.
Fewer than half the students graduate within six years at many South Florida colleges and universities. But if the number of dropped classes is any indication, schools could improve.
The University of Florida saw a 32 percent decline in 2009 in the number of courses dropped by Bright Futures recipients. Florida Atlantic University's dropped courses fell 22 percent for all students. FIU's overall decline was 13 percent.
The Bright Futures change may not be the only factor affecting the numbers. Students who don't have the scholarship have always had to pay for dropped classes. But they may be more reluctant to do that during the recession.
"Times are tough, and money is being held close to the chest," said Anthony Rionda, FIU's student government president. "You try to stick it out."
While Bright Futures recipients may not like the change in the law, few are complaining, college officials said.
"I think most people understand the inherent unfairness of expecting taxpayers to pick up a bill for a dropped class," UF spokesman Steve Orlando said.