Changes make Bright Futures less lucrative, less flexible, easier to lose

USF freshman Karsen Lonzo, 18, talks to financial aid adviser Denise Wilt on the Tampa campus Wednesday. Lonzo’s Bright Futures scholarship did not cover as much as she had thought, so she took out a student loan.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

USF freshman Karsen Lonzo, 18, talks to financial aid adviser Denise Wilt on the Tampa campus Wednesday. Lonzo’s Bright Futures scholarship did not cover as much as she had thought, so she took out a student loan.

TAMPA — University of South Florida freshman Karsen Lonzo arrived this fall confident her Bright Futures scholarship would largely cover this year's $5,200 tuition and fees.

But it didn't go as far as she expected, forcing the 18-year-old to take out a $1,700 student loan.

She is not alone. On campuses across Florida, Bright Futures scholarships are paying less than they once did. And some students are starting their college careers with a new reality: The scholarship is easier to lose if your grades slip.

"It definitely is still going to be a big factor because whatever money you get is still money," Lonzo said. "But it's not as good a deal as it used to be."

For high school students, the news is even more sobering. Starting with the Class of 2012, the minimum SAT score needed to win a scholarship will rise. Because students from low-income and minority families tend to score lower on standardized tests, critics predict that winning a scholarship will get even harder for them.

All this is happening largely because the popular program has grown faster than the state's ability to pay for it.

Since 1997, Bright Futures has awarded more than $3 billion to an estimated 500,000 students. At the same time, the number of students who qualify has quadrupled, driving the program's annual cost from under $70 million to more than $420 million.

Meanwhile, revenues from the Florida Lottery, which pays for Bright Futures, have flattened, and money for education generally has gotten much tighter.

So this year lawmakers passed changes aimed at trimming Bright Futures spending by more than $100 million a year by 2018.

"We were doing everything possible to save the program," said state Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, chairwoman of the Senate's Higher Education Appropriations Committee. "We would not have been able to fund it had we not made the changes that we did."

• • •

Legislators created Bright Futures to encourage high school students to prepare for college and stay in Florida.

It worked.

More than 169,000 students received the scholarship in the 2008-09 school year, according to the state's latest count. More than two-thirds went to one of Florida's 11 public universities. Another quarter were in a state college.

Some of the changes to Bright Futures apply only to this year's freshmen and those who follow. But one that affects all eligible students right now is a reduction in the amounts of the awards.

Originally, Bright Futures paid a set percentage of tuition.

The program's Academic Scholars, for example, paid 100 percent of tuition and allowable fees for students with the top test scores, best grades and a record of community service.

The Medallion scholarship went to students with lower test scores and paid 75 percent of university tuition and fees.

But Florida's tuition is the 49th lowest in the nation, so over the last three years lawmakers tried to create a way to catch up. Legislators now allow each state university to charge a "differential" tuition on top of the state's base tuition.

Together, the base and differential rates can increase tuition by up to 15 percent a year until Florida's tuition reaches the national average. From the start, however, officials said Bright Futures would not cover differential tuition.

With the picture in flux and getting more complex, officials scrapped the old way Bright Futures paid awards. Gone were the set percentages. In came a set of flat rates per credit hour. Now university students get $94 or $125 per credit hour, depending on the scholarship.

By comparison, public university tuition and fees statewide average $165 per credit hour. State Department of Education officials note that since Bright Futures has never paid differential tuition, which amounts to $22 per credit hour at USF, the University of Florida and Florida State, the difference between past and present is not as great as it might seem.

Students, however, zero in on a bottom line that forces them to pay more.

"You work hard," said Natalie Sherk, 21, a USF senior majoring in health sciences. "Now they're lessening the money."

What's more, students can forget about going to college and finding themselves on the state's dime.

Starting with this year's freshman class, the program covers only the credit hours a student needs to graduate. Before, there was a 10 percent cushion. That let students switch majors or take courses not directly related to their degree.

"You better come to school knowing exactly what you want your major to be and don't deviate from that," USF financial aid director Billie Jo Hamilton said. "If you do, you're obviously going to have to pay for it via other means."

Bright Futures also is becoming easier to lose. Before, students who let their grades slip had one opportunity to earn back the award while they were in college. Starting with this year's freshmen, they'll be able to do that only their first year.

While the freshman year can be rough, USF senior Milly Vazquez said, it's not the only time problems can derail studies.

"You only get more responsibility as you get older," she said, "so you're bound to run into something."

Still, state officials say Florida has not forsaken needy university students. State law requires universities to use 30 percent of the money from differential tuition for need-based financial aid for undergraduates.

"If someone really wants to go to college and get a degree, there are a lot of avenues to help you pay for that," said state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

The state Board of Governors, which must approve proposals for differential tuition, plans to hold a workshop devoted to financial aid, including Bright Futures.

"We're extremely sensitive to student situations, and we're going to monitor this tuition differential situation very closely," Board of Governors spokeswoman Kelly Layman said.

• • •

Over the years, Bright Futures has faced one other criticism: It's too easy to get.

Students can qualify for a Medallion scholarship with a 970 on the SAT. That's the 41st percentile.

Partly to save money and partly to address that criticism, legislators are raising qualifying test scores for Bright Futures. Higher minimum SAT scores for Medallion scholarships will kick in for this year's class of high school juniors. Higher qualifying scores for the Academic Scholars award go into effect for the high school class now in its sophomore year.

Critics say affluent families can hire tutors for their children or pay for students to take tests repeatedly until they score high enough. Poor and some minority families cannot.

"The increased test score requirements for the Florida Academic Scholars and particularly the Florida Medallion Scholars awards are certain to result in fewer low-income and minority students being eligible for tuition aid," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the nonprofit group FairTest.

USF admits few students with test scores at the lowest end of the range, said Hamilton, the financial aid director. But for low-income students or those who are the first in their families to attend college, "it will mean more of a challenge for them, I'm sure."

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Higher SAT scores

One of the many changes to the Bright Futures scholarships is higher minimum SAT scores

Florida Academic
Scholars

1270 Current minimum

1280 Class
of 2013

1290 Class
of 2014

Florida Medallion Scholars

970 Current
minimum

980 Class
of 2012

1020 Class
of 2013

1050 Class
of 2014




Changes to Bright Futures

This year

$1 less paid per credit hour

Florida Academic Scholars: $125 for universities; $86 for bachelor's programs at state community colleges

Florida Medallion Scholars: $94 for universities; $77 for associate's programs at state community colleges; $64 for bachelor's programs at state community colleges

2010-2011 tuition and fees for
in-state undergraduates:

USF Tampa: $170.80 per credit hour

University of Florida: $168.15 per credit hour

Florida State University: $173.26 per credit hour

University of Central Florida: $167.35 per credit hour

State average: $165 per credit hour

Less flexibility

Before: Could use scholarship for up to 110 percent of hours needed to complete a degree.

Now: Starting with this year's freshmen, recipients can use scholarship only for 100 percent of hours required for their program of study.

Tighter restrictions

Students must maintain a 3.0 GPA to keep an Academic Scholars award and a 2.75 GPA to keep a Medallion scholarship.

Before: Could restore it once any time during their college career.

Now: Starting with this year's freshmen, recipients can do that only their first year in college.

Less time

Before: Students could receive Bright Futures for up to seven years after graduating from high school.

Now: Starting with the high school Class of 2011, students can receive Bright Futures for up to five years after graduating from high school.

Early graduates

New: Those who earn a bachelor's degree in seven semesters or less can receive funding for one term of graduate study, paid at the undergraduate rate for up to 15 hours.


Changes make Bright Futures less lucrative, less flexible, easier to lose 08/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 6, 2010 3:06pm]

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