TAMPA — Sometimes, as Kareem Elgendi stared down a tough SAT question, a tendril of anxiety wound its way into his head.
If I don't get the score I need, will I be able to pay for college?
He had lugged home SAT books his sophomore year at Blake High School, already practicing, hoping to win Florida's Bright Futures scholarship.
With a score of 1290, he would qualify for Bright Futures' top tier, securing about $3,090 a year — a big dent in the $6,000 tuition and fees that Florida's public universities charge on average. He took the SAT once, twice, three times, with mounting fear.
Finally getting that score, he said, "was the best feeling ever."
The scholarship helped him avoid student loans. But he still spent his freshman year at the University of South Florida living at home and working as a valet to save money. His parents still chipped in for textbooks.
This year, as the Bright Futures program turns 20, lawmakers want to sweeten the deal for Elgendi and more than 40,000 high achievers like him. If Gov. Rick Scott signs the legislation, top scholars would receive 100 percent of tuition at a Florida university, plus most fees. And for the first time, the scholarship would pay for their summer classes.
It's a generous boost that would restore much of the luster Bright Futures lost during recession-era cutbacks.
But it also renews a debate that has swirled around the program from its beginnings: How much should Florida spend on subsidizing college for its residents? And who among them should benefit the most?
Critics say the hefty investment in merit — $5 billion over 20 years — betrays a state statute requiring aid to flow "primarily" to needy students. And cost-saving changes have hurt low-income and minority students, even sparking a federal review.
Still, state leaders say Bright Futures keeps smart students in Florida and lifts its universities to loftier tiers. They have come down largely on the side of rewarding merit, a decision that will lop thousands more off the college bill for Elgendi's family.
It's a welcome investment, considering his sister heads to college in a few years. Her eyes are already on the full-tuition prize.
• • •
For Tess Jordan's family, the calculus began early.
Her three sons would be going to college, no question. But for a divorced teacher, funding the Ivy League education she'd gotten could only be a fantasy.
Jordan, now 57, socked away tuition money while her sons worked to land Bright Futures' top award. Now their story could be a Bright Futures brochure. All three of her sons have engineering degrees from USF or the University of Central Florida, all with less than $20,000 in student loans. Two own homes in Florida.
"They're the better for it, and so am I," said Jordan, who lives in Trinity.
Success stories are easy to find. Pinning down the program's long-term effects is trickier.
Studies in 2003 found that Bright Futures encouraged a more rigorous course load and kept thousands more students in state. And in 2011, Florida State researcher Shouping Hu found the program had boosted university enrollment by 22 percent and increased the number of students graduating.
The scholarships have become an invaluable defense against other states' aggressive college recruitment, said USF provost Ralph Wilcox. Meanwhile, admissions counselors in Florida are flooded with applications featuring ever-higher SAT scores from students who might have gone out of state in the past but don't want to leave Bright Futures money on the table.
"Alumni joke that they probably couldn't get into the University of Florida these days," said UF provost Joe Glover. UF's incoming class boasts an average 4.4 weighted GPA and a 1349 SAT score.
All kinds of considerations — prestige, destination, size — feed into a student's college choice. But for many, affordability is the conversation-ending factor.
Less than a third of Floridians say college is affordable in this state, a UF study found in 2013 amid growing student debt.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, described the choice before a student who gets into a top out-of-state university.
"Ten years ago parents would say, 'Let's borrow money, cash in the 401K, mom will get a second job,' " Negron said. "Now, I see parents and students sitting around the dining room table making decisions based on a few thousand dollars."
Bright Futures also gives students like Matthew Brockus, a USF freshman, an extra push.
Brockus grew up dreaming of building race cars, then rockets. But his grades were less ambitious. To go to college, he realized, he'd need to step up.
He started studying harder and scooping poop at the Humane Society to rack up volunteer hours for Bright Futures.
"My mom said, 'Don't worry about money,' " he said. "But I didn't want that burden on her."
• • •
In the heat of summer 2003, one of the scholarship's creators roamed the state in a school bus. His beloved program was drowning in its own success. Critics threatened cuts, calling it a costly time bomb that rewarded middle-class mediocrity while needy students stagnated.
Ken Pruitt, then a powerful state senator, wanted critics to remember how Florida had looked before Bright Futures.
In the late 1990s, many Florida students were failing to finish their degrees, if they went to college at all. Top students fled to other states. Parents wanted to know why the Florida Lottery wasn't improving education, as promised.
Bright Futures aimed to right those wrongs.
It was modeled on Georgia's merit-based HOPE scholarship, which a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial once called "the kind of thing you look at half in amazement and half in anger, and wonder why your own bonehead state didn't think of it."
The point of Bright Futures was not to be exclusionary. "A" students with great test scores got full tuition and fees, an incentive to stay in state. "B" students with average test scores — a 970 SAT or 20 ACT — got three-quarters.
"It kept all of your good students who played by the rules, who wanted a slice of the American dream," Pruitt said.
But criticism came quickly.
In Bright Futures' first year, 70 percent of recipients demonstrated little to no financial need, and more than three-quarters were white. The Lottery players who funded the scholarships tended to be low-income minorities — "a reverse Robin Hood effect," one researcher called it.
Charles Reed, former chancellor of the state university system, called it "one of the dumbest public policies I know, to give rich people financial aid to go to the state schools and to ignore the more needy students."
By 2003, the state spent double on Bright Futures what it spent on its largest need-based program. Lawmakers proposed income caps. Others scoffed at the low bar: A third of all high school students qualified.
"How can you have a merit program that doesn't qualify you to get into college?" former FSU president T.K. Wetherell said.
Plus, Bright Futures acted like an anchor on the state's rock-bottom tuition, angering universities that wanted more money to make improvements.
But for families, the program had already become an essential piece of college planning. As thousands of defenders joined Pruitt's school bus crusade, lawmakers left Bright Futures untouched.
So it grew, and grew.
• • •
With the recession came a breaking point.
Bright Futures had kept ballooning as enrollments soared, costing $424 million by 2009. At UF, where the median family income is $100,000, 95 percent of freshmen were using the scholarship.
Lottery ticket sales slumped. Lawmakers faced billions in budget shortfalls. To save Bright Futures, they said they'd need to slash it.
They scrapped the old model, making the award a flat-rate payout. They eliminated perks like a textbook stipend and hiked eligibility requirements, despite warnings that low-income and minority students would suffer.
"I'm graduating at the right time because everything is starting to fall apart," a UF senior told the Ledger newspaper in Lakeland in 2009.
As tuition and fees skyrocketed, all students, but particularly B-level students who missed the new cutoff, took on thousands in bills. In 2013, the change affected nearly 40 percent of USF's freshman class.
Then, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Education dropped a bombshell. Its Office for Civil Rights was reviving an investigation into Bright Futures' fairness.
Investigators didn't find intentional discrimination, but said the changes disproportionately hurt disadvantaged students.
Socioeconomic status and test scores go hand-in-hand, research has shown. While middle-class families can invest in SAT prep to ensure scholarships down the line, low-income students have limited access and are more likely to miss merit-aid cutoffs.
Of course, merit and need-based aid overlap. At USF, 35 percent of Bright Futures students also got Pell grants for financial need in 2015.
Some lawmakers argue that need-based funding makes a bigger impact. Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said that without need-based grants, she could not have attended Hillsborough Community College and still paid rent.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Winter Park, has proposed restoring the pre-recession standards, which helped make the program more inclusive. He attended UCF with "B"-level funding and takes program cuts personally, he said, because today, he wouldn't qualify.
"I wouldn't have been able to afford a college degree, and I wouldn't be a state lawmaker," he said. "What they're saying is students like me don't deserve it."
• • •
Despite dimmer days in recent years, Bright Futures has helped fund the education of 750,000 young Floridians. And with this year's proposed boost, costing the state an extra $152 million, lawmakers say the state would truly reward merit once again.
Right now, a Florida State freshman pays about $6,500 a year in tuition and fees. Bright Futures' current top-tier funding cuts that in half. Soon, that bill could be $0. (Not to mention $600 per year for textbooks.)
Meanwhile, B-level students will still pay about $4,190 a year at FSU.
A $39.5 million investment in summer funding championed by Gov. Scott aims to help top students graduate more quickly, since they won't have to avoid costly summer classes.
Negron, the Senate president, said the changes would fuel Florida colleges in their quest to become "destination universities," like the University of North Carolina.
But some say the key to Bright Futures was the investment it made in B-level students, who tend to come from more diverse backgrounds and need more help paying for college.
Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, a nonprofit advocacy organization, put his criticism bluntly: "When you pour most of your money into your top-tier scholarship, you are giving that money to upper-middle-class white kids." He called them "the children of the powers that be."
Historically, far more white students qualify for the top-tier award. Of 51,200 eligible students statewide in 2015, less than 4 percent were black. About 20 percent were Hispanic.
The diminished emphasis on B-level students may also work against the state's goal to increase the number of college-educated Floridians.
Research shows that affluent students are a near-lock to graduate, regardless of financial incentives. Investing in needy students, however, helps raise enrollment and graduation rates.
That's why Negron and Sen. Bill Galvano, the next Senate president, secured a serious boost for need-based aid programs, including $121 million for the Florida Student Assistance Grant.
"If we were just ignoring those, then yes, maybe we'd have to step back," Galvano said. "But I believe there should be programs like Bright Futures that truly test the individual and make them achieve as high as possible."
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from Times files. Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.