TALLAHASSEE — Florida can't afford its popular Bright Futures Scholarship Program.
State analysts have warned as much for years, but the Sunshine State's gloomy economy is now forcing lawmakers to concede a politically incorrect reality: Bright Futures, the merit-based scholarship that has helped send more than 1 million students to public college in Florida, needs an overhaul.
The fix is likely to mean smaller scholarships that don't cover rising tuition bills at Florida colleges and universities, a change that could affect tens of thousands of families trying to budget for college during this historic economic downturn.
It could also mean higher academic standards, or criteria that take into account family income.
Lawmakers, faced with dwindling lottery revenue and an increasing number of Bright Futures recipients, are effectively capping the scholarship amount at current-year tuition levels — even though tuition next year will rise by 8 percent at community colleges and by as much as 15 percent at the 11 state universities.
"This is the beginning of change," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, the chamber's leader on higher education funding. "We'll see how long we can continue to provide those dollars. Everything depends on the economy."
Senate Budget Committee Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, pointed out that lottery revenue to fund Bright Futures is running at a $113 million deficit, forcing lawmakers to take money from the anemic pot of general revenue dollars just to cover current obligations.
"It's really unsustainable at this point," said Alexander.
Capping the scholarship at current-year levels, rather than raising it to match next year's 8 percent base tuition hike, will save the state nearly $35 million in the budget year that starts July 1.
"In order to be able to keep that program, we probably have to reform it — maybe cap it," conceded Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna.
That could mean a big difference in the college plans of Alex Wert, a senior at Northeast High in St. Petersburg.
Wert, 18, chose the University of South Florida so she could save money while living at home.
Wert's mother Sherry said they might not be able to afford even that, thanks to the Bright Futures changes.
"She may have to go to St. Petersburg College because it's a little cheaper," said Wert, a substitute teacher with the Pinellas school district. "The Bright Futures dollars would go further there."
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Bright Futures has been criticized since its 1997 inception for providing scholarships regardless of financial need — and to students whose high school academic performance is arguably mediocre.
The idea was to keep the brightest students in Florida colleges by luring them with a full or partial ride. But from the start, there were critics.
Charlie Reed, then chancellor of Florida's university system, recently called Bright Futures "one of the dumbest public policies I know, to give rich people financial aid to go to the state schools and to ignore the most needy students."
To get a full Bright Futures scholarship to a state university, students need a 1270 on the SAT or a 28 on the ACT.
It takes only a 970 SAT or 20 ACT to get a full community college scholarship or a scholarship covering 75 percent of tuition at a state university.
That SAT score won't get students into many of Florida's top state institutions, and the academic standards have not changed since lawmakers established Bright Futures 12 years ago.
"It can't be an entitlement program without adequate standards," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "The standards are too low."
Case in point: More than 95 percent of incoming University of Florida freshmen have the SATs and ACTs to earn Bright Futures scholarships. Yet many of them could afford tuition on their own. A 2004 survey found that the median annual income of all students' families was $100,000. Nearly a quarter of UF families reported incomes of more than $150,000.
A small chorus of lawmakers and business leaders pushed in 1998 to keep costs down by raising the academic standards so that fewer students would qualify, but Bright Futures was already too politically popular to tweak.
So as more students took advantage of Bright Futures, the costs ballooned. The program cost about $400 million in lottery revenue last year and covered nearly 160,000 students, up from $75 million for 42,000 students in its first year. Lottery revenue until recently has kept up, but the economic downturn and more than 10 percent unemployment rate in Florida means fewer people now are willing to gamble away a few extra dollars on Lotto tickets.
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Some lawmakers, while conceding Bright Futures is too expensive in its current form, worry that raising the academic standards might eliminate minority or low-income students.
Seven percent of scholarship recipients are black, a percentage that hasn't changed in 12 years. The percentage of Hispanic recipients has gone from 10 percent to 15 percent — though that also reflects an overall increase in Florida's Hispanic population.
Capping the award at a set amount might be more palatable in the upcoming election year.
"You can argue the standards," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn. "But we have increased the number of students who attend college, and far more minority students are going to college. Anything we can do to help people afford college is important."
Times staff writers Amy Hollyfield and Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.