The phones have been ringing off the hook at college financial aid offices across Florida.
Parents are calling and asking why? Why must Bright Futures scholarship recipients submit a federal financial aid form?
They never had to before.
"Because they said so," chuckled Billie Jo Hamilton, University of South Florida's director for university scholarships and financial aid services. "They" are lawmakers who approved the new rule.
But it's no laughing matter. No form, no money. That's the urgent message universities have been sending to students this week in e-mail blasts, phone calls and postcards reminding them to fill out the FAFSA.
And depending on a college's own deadlines, a student could have several months — or just several weeks — to submit the critical application. USF, for instance, asks that all scholarships and payments be sorted out two weeks before the start of the semester.
A bill passed during the 2011 legislative session included the new requirement that all Florida Bright Futures Scholarship winners must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The application requires families to provide tax data, including documented earnings for the previous year.
The legislation received some media attention at the time it was passed. However, when students and their families heard about the changes at USF's early June orientation, Hamilton said, many seemed to be hearing it for the first time.
"There was a lot of tittering in the room; a lot of the 'oh my gosh' kind," she said. "It felt like it was the first time a lot of them had heard about the change."
Part of the problem, financial aid officials said, was timing.
The requirements were not signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott until May 26, when many high school seniors — and guidance counselors — were busy preparing for final exams and graduations.
Some parents who know they don't qualify for financial assistance have been hesitant to submit personal financial information.
More than 177,000 students got a Bright Futures scholarship in 2009-2010, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. Last year the program paid out more than $400 million.
In mid-June, the Education Department sent an e-mail to all eligible students about the changes to the program.
Universities say they will continue the Bright Futures alerts throughout the summer.
"We are in the process of sending out a postcard to all our undergrads to let them know of these changes," said Rick Wilder, University of Florida's interim financial aid director.
The University of Central Florida even devised a system that periodically checks whether the FAFSA form has been processed, said Mary McKinney, the university's executive director of their Student Finance Assistance Office. If it hasn't, students are sent another reminder.
Some university administrators said the new process may benefit families by forcing them to apply for aid they may not have realized they qualify for. Others speculate the forms will be used to gather socioeconomic information about Bright Future Scholars.
Regardless of intent, it is a rule that cannot be broken.
"We just want to make sure that all Bright Futures families understand it's the act of filling out the FAFSA — not the results — that matters," Hamilton said.
Even as universities push to get Florida families to pay attention, they are bracing for frantic calls as the fall semester approaches.
"We know that, invariably, when fall comes, there will still be students who haven't filled one out," Wilder said.
The message will remain the same: No form. No money.
Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected]