To win Florida's top Bright Futures scholarship, high school students must have good grades, high test scores, no felony record and 75 hours of community service.
But once they're in college, an ethical slip does not necessarily mean they lose their state-funded Bright Futures award. To the contrary, in certain circumstances students can get caught cheating and still keep the scholarship, officials say.
That's because state law says students must maintain a minimum grade point average — a 2.75 or 3.0, depending on the type of Bright Futures award — and earn a minimum number of credit hours to maintain their scholarship.
But the law says nothing about keeping your nose clean.
So a student with a robust GPA and plentiful credit hours could flunk a course for cheating and it might not hurt his or her eligibility for Bright Futures.
Until the Times called last week, Florida Department of Education officials said no one had ever asked about Bright Futures money going to students who cheat.
"There's no statutory requirement that we track those incidents," said Levis Hughes, bureau chief for the department's office of student financial assistance.
Two influential legislators took a dim view of the loophole.
"I definitely intend to take it up with my committee," said state Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, chairwoman of the Senate's Higher Education Appropriations Committee.
"We really need to take a careful look at, 'Doesn't this endanger your scholarship?' " Lynn said. "Monies are getting tighter, and we want our students to be able to get as much help as they can, but not if they don't want to follow the rules."
Bright Futures paid $423.5 million to nearly 178,000 Florida students last year.
But with the program growing faster than the lottery revenues that pay for it, the Legislature this year tried to trim it by $100 million a year. Awards got smaller, harder to win and easier to lose for poor grades.
If a student with Bright Futures cheats, "I think the loss of the scholarship is probably appropriate," said state Rep. Bill Proctor, the chairman of the House education committee.
"I don't see that as being unnecessarily punitive," said Proctor, the chancellor of Flagler College, a private, nonprofit school in St. Augustine. "There seldom are degrees of cheating. Cheating is cheating, and it's pretty hard to say that this is minor cheating and that's serious cheating."
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In Florida, the spotlight is on cheating now largely because of a scandal this month at the University of Central Florida.
There, officials say about 200 business students in a class of 615 received a set of exam questions before the midterm. Saying the cheating made him sick, instructor Richard Quinn gave the students a choice — come clean or face consequences that could include being suspended or expelled.
Quinn's outrage struck a chord nationwide because cheating is a big issue on virtually every campus, not just at UCF. In surveys, 60 to 70 percent of college students report engaging in questionable academic activity.
Despite the use of antiplagiarism services such as Turnitin.com or SafeAssign, researchers say students are getting more lax — or brazen — about cutting and pasting from the Internet.
Some don't even bother with that. Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay from an East Coast man whose business is writing custom-ordered academic papers in fields from history to pharmacology to maritime security — to ethics.
"My customers are your students. I promise you that," he wrote. Sometimes, he said, the students' parents pay his fee.
In Florida, the state's biggest four universities handle and track students who cheat in different ways.
At USF, perhaps 50 students a year receive an "FF" grade, which can be listed on a student's internal transcript in cases of cheating. The FF reflects not only a failing grade, but also that the student did something academically dishonest. Students with FF grades cannot graduate with honors from USF.
But even if they fail a course because they cheated, they might still have a GPA high enough to continue receiving a Bright Futures award.
"You'd have to be on the bubble grade point average-wise for that one class to knock you out," said USF financial aid director Billie Jo Hamilton.
A sample of students with FF grades showed that usually they already had low grades, so they might not have had a Bright Futures scholarship to lose. Their cheating might have been an act of desperation, said Janet Moore, USF's associate dean for undergraduate studies.
A second FF results in a one-semester suspension. To return, students must write a "clear statement" indicating their remorse, as well as their understanding of the seriousness of the offense and the importance of integrity in all work. At the third FF, they are dismissed permanently.
But many cases are handled by instructors working directly with students, sometimes deciding that they will fail the exam in question or must rewrite a plagiarized paper, Moore said. Suspensions or expulsions for cheating are rare.
UCF had 290 reported cases of academic misconduct during 2009-10, more than double the number from the previous year. Those resulted in 32 students being put on probation, 33 suspensions, one expulsion and 165 students taking a four-hour ethics seminar.
Those cases don't include instances where instructors confronted students and made them redo an assignment or docked them a grade.
Starting this semester, UCF will begin adding what's known as a "Z designation" to the transcripts of students caught cheating.
The Z signals to outsiders looking at the transcript that the grade was earned as a result of academic dishonesty. It does not change the grade and thus does not lower the GPA. It also can be removed by taking the ethics course — but just once.
Neither the University of Florida nor Florida State University notes cases of cheating on students' transcripts.
At FSU, most penalties for cheating are grade-related, according to university spokeswoman Browning Brooks.
A student could fail an assignment or the whole course, possibly dragging down the GPA enough to lose the Bright Futures scholarship. But Brooks noted the relationship between any cheating and what happens with the scholarship is indirect.
At UF, where 77 percent of students have Bright Futures scholarships, the consequences for cheating range from a penalty on the assignment up through expulsion. In 2009, UF handled about 350 cases of cheating — more than the previous two years combined.
Failing a course is "fairly common" but not automatic, according to UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes. Suspensions are common for repeat offenders. Expulsions are rare, occurring, for example, when a doctoral student plagiarizes a dissertation.
But while each of Florida's largest universities has developed its own academic integrity policies and procedures, it appears none tracks how, or even whether, getting caught cheating affects students' eligibility to receive Bright Futures.
Consequently, none can say how many students might fit through the loophole.
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Researchers who study cheating say fostering a culture of integrity may help curb student dishonesty more than efforts at prevention and policing. USF encourages instructors to talk about the importance of honesty.
"We're trying to educate them that it's bigger" than what happens in class, Moore said. "It's a choice that they're making, and they're setting a pattern for life."
Still, that can be a tough lesson in a society where some parents hire their children ghostwriters for their term papers.
"That's the thing that we're up against in our whole culture: that getting ahead is more important than what you are and how you got it," Moore said. Look at the economic downturn, she said. "We have numerous, endless examples of greed."