Florida's Bright Futures program began as a way to keep the smartest students from attending college out of state — driven by fears they might never return.
To prevent this "brain drain," high-achieving students were given thousands of dollars a year toward tuition costs. More than half a million students have benefited so far, and Bright Futures is enormously popular with politicians and parents alike.
The money is awarded regardless of family income.
Now, Bright Futures' future direction is a little cloudy as state lawmakers look at ways to ratchet back the benefits amid flattening lottery revenues and the loss of stimulus dollars used to shore up the fund last year.
One proposal in the Senate would reduce the size of the scholarships by $1,000. Another in the House would raise the minimum SAT score needed to qualify by about 200 points.
Taking another tack, some critics suggest the scholarships be based at least partly on need.
A recent Florida Department of Education analysis of income data for Bright Futures recipients found as many as 56 percent may not have financial need.
"I have a lot of very rich wealthy friends who are having their kids get a free ride in college as a result of this," said Miami Dade College president Eduardo Padrón. "That is wrong."
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Like the cost of a college education, the cost of Bright Futures has skyrocketed — from an initial price tag of $70 million in 1997 to $437 million today, making it easily the state's most expensive student aid program.
Bright Futures awards are generally funded by lottery money, as opposed to tax dollars.
The program gets just a slice of every lottery dollar. Lottery revenue is also funneled into K-12 schools, school construction bonds and community colleges. And of course, there are lottery prizes to pay out.
Theoretically, if the state decided to spend less on scholarships, it could spend more on those other educational areas.
With the growth of Bright Futures over the years, the college scholarship program was draining a greater share of those lottery dollars. Last year, the expense was so high, the state had to dig into stimulus money and other one-time revenues to plug the $100 million hole.
Defenders of Bright Futures, as it currently operates, say the scholarships were never meant to be need-based. The awards were designed to boost overall college attendance and to keep Florida's best students close to home, said state Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who heads the Senate's higher education appropriations committee.
"We have more students than ever going to college, and we also have more students staying in Florida,'' Lynn said. "So those two have been accomplished."
At the selective University of Florida, qualifying for Bright Futures is almost automatic — about 93 percent of incoming freshmen get the award.
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For most low-income students, there are federal Pell Grants, which top out annually at $5,500; for households considered middle class there is the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides up to $2,500 for individuals making up to $80,000 (or couples making up to $160,000).
The terms "middle-class" and "financial need" can be fuzzy in the world of college math. A couple earning $50,000 with one child might be ineligible for Pell Grants, but a couple with three children and the same income might receive Pell money.
While middle-class families may feel they're being squeezed more than poor families, statistics show that "just isn't true," said financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz. Poor students tend to borrow more frequently, and heavily, than other students, Kantrowitz said.
And, according to Paul Lingenfelter, president of the Colorado-based State Higher Education Executive Officers association, research has shown that aid to needy students significantly boosts college participation and graduation rates. Students from wealthier families are a near-lock to attend and graduate from college, so financial incentives don't move the needle much.
"It makes a difference whether or not they need the money," Lingenfelter said. "If they need the money and they don't have it, they're not likely to participate and continue."
Attracting top students to Florida schools, regardless of income, has been at the core of Bright Futures. In that mission, there has been documented success.
A 2003 state of Florida study found that the percentage of high school graduates attending an in-state college jumped from 52 percent before Bright Futures to 61 percent several years in.
At New College of Florida in Sarasota — the state university system's honors college — the rise in in-state students has been even more dramatic. Before Bright Futures, the 825-student liberal arts college was split about 50-50 between Florida undergrads and out-of-state students. Now, about 80 percent come from Florida, according to school president Mike Michalson.
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When it comes to the "brain drain" concerns that sparked the creation of Bright Futures, Michalson notes that another way to combat brain drain is to lure other states' brightest students, which New College used to do more. Once in Florida, those out-of-state students often stayed here for good, he says.
"Quite frankly, we'd rather be closer to that 50-50 number," Michalson said. "It makes for a more diverse student population."
So who are the lottery players who support Bright Futures through their millionaire dreams? More than a decade ago, University of North Florida professor Mary Borg decided to find out, also researching the makeup of scholarship winners.
What she found: Lottery players tended to be poor, uneducated and minority, while Bright Futures recipients were more likely to come from college-educated, upper-income, white households. In a report she co-wrote, the phenomenon was called "a reverse Robin Hood effect."
Though UNF president John Delaney shared the report with lawmakers, the response was a collective shrug, Borg recalled.
"Unfortunately, there hasn't been any reaction except 'Well, yeah, we knew that,' " Borg said.