TALLAHASSEE — At first, Frank Jaffe thought he'd go to college out of state until he heard about Florida's Bright Futures scholarship.
It was a deal the 18-year-old couldn't refuse — the freshman merchandising major at Florida State University is one of 170,000 students statewide who get money. He gets 75 percent of his tuition paid; others get 100 percent.
"Someone told me they'd pay all your tuition, I'm like, 'Owww, it makes it hard to go out of state when you can go in-state for almost nothing,' " Jaffe said.
More than 90 percent of incoming freshmen at some campuses and nearly half of all undergraduates at Florida's 11 public universities get Bright Futures grants — whether they need the money or not.
Florida's largest scholarship program for university, community college and vocational students, paid for by $436-million in lottery proceeds, is based entirely on merit. Needy students who fall short on grades or test scores get nothing although those at the lowest income rungs can qualify for other assistance.
Supporters say Bright Futures encourages high school students to excel in and out of the classroom — those who get good grades, achieve high test scores and perform community service are rewarded. It also helps prevent brain-drain by keeping many of Florida's brightest students away from out-of-state schools, they say. Students who don't maintain their grades in college lose their money.
"There's a lot to be said for receiving aid because you worked for it," said state Rep. Marti Coley, chairwoman of the House Post-secondary Committee. The Marianna Republican said it helps students from those in-between families who are financially stressed yet still make too much money to get need-based aid.
Critics, though, say Bright Futures is fundamentally unfair and causes economic problems for the universities, which get the bulk of the scholarship money. But their attempts to modify the program have failed because of its vast public support.
They say the program is growing faster than the lottery's ability to pay for it and that it helps the children of the rich at the expense of the poor, who buy lots of lottery tickets but are least likely to qualify for scholarships.
Because Bright Futures can't afford large increases, they say, it artificially keeps tuition at the state's schools among the nation's lowest — it ranges from about $3,400 to just under $4,000 for in-state students.
That means more state taxes have to be diverted to the universities, popular schools cap enrollment and some programs lack funding. And every year Bright Futures eats a bigger share of the lottery's profits, cutting into money that goes to secondary and elementary schools.
Critics sometimes call it the "BMW scholarship" because the windfall allows parents to use college savings for other purposes such as buying their children fancy cars.
"Go around the universities and look at the BMWs and Corvettes," said Charles Reed, a former State University System chancellor. "It's embarrassing."
When Bright Futures began in 1997, Reed, now chancellor of the California State University system, called it "one of the worst" public policies ever. He's since changed that to "the worst."
"It does not have any need-based criteria, so the upper-middle class and the wealthy get rewarded," Reed said in a telephone interview. "It has to be one of the best giveaway programs in America."
There's nothing like it in California, which has only a need-based financial aid program, Reed said. The only program similar to Bright Futures is Georgia's Hope Scholarship.
There's little appetite for change, though. Just ask state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate. Hoping to encourage more students to go into math, science and technology, he introduced a bill this year to increase Bright Futures grants in those fields while reducing them for other majors.
Ring dropped his idea after an outpouring of opposition from students and parents. It included a "Protect Your Bright Futures" page on the Facebook social-networking Web site that drew nearly 20,000 members in three weeks.
"I was really surprised by the response because we weren't doing anything to get rid of Bright Futures," Ring said. "It's a third-rail issue." That means anyone who touches it will suffer a quick political death.
It's so sensitive that State University System chancellor Mark Rosenberg and the Department of Education, which administers the program, declined interview requests. Their spokesmen said it's a legislative, not administrative, issue.
Rosenberg works for the Board of Governors, which oversees the universities. The board this year briefly floated the idea of capping Bright Futures and adding a need-based element. The panel quickly dropped it after getting the same kind of opposition Ring later drew.
There has also been some talk of toughening the standards, but that's gotten nowhere. To get a 100 percent grant, a high school graduate must have at least a 3.5 grade point average in 15 college prep courses, a 1270 on the SAT entrance exam or 28 on the ACT and 75 hours of community service.
The criteria for 75 percent funding is a 3.0 grade point and 970 on the SAT or 20 on the ACT. Both test scores are only slightly above statewide and below national averages. There's no community service requirement.
The percentage of undergraduates who get Bright Futures grants is highest at the state's most selective schools, where good grades and high test scores are a prerequisite for entry: 72 percent at the University of Florida, 64 percent at New College of Florida and 58 percent at Florida State. Historically black Florida A&M is at the opposite end: 12 percent of its students get grants. The figures are based on a 2006-07 breakdown, the latest done by university officials.
Jaffe is a prime example of both sides of the debate. He could have gone out-of-state to New York University or Temple University but stayed in Florida because of Bright Futures.
But his dad is a doctor and could have paid his tuition.
"Our family doesn't really need it, but we certainly like it," Jaffe said. "We take advantage of everything the state would offer us."