TAMPA — This story could have been written 12 years ago. Or nine years ago. Or seven or six or four or two years ago or last year, too.
It seems the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program has been under scrutiny since its inception. That a Florida State University professor was just given a $780,000 federal grant to study the merit-based award's effectiveness isn't exactly a shock.
Shouping Hu, who's published several previous studies on college students' behavior, wants to find out whether Bright Futures leads to higher college enrollment and more timely degree production. Basically, if a student gets the scholarship, is he or she more likely to go to college, get good grades and graduate on time?
"As a researcher, you don't want to speculate," said Hu, who is now interviewing assistants to help with the three-year study.
The education professor isn't concerned with the politics of the program or the ways some people say the Bright Futures program should be changed. He's purely focused on the numbers.
But that doesn't mean the higher education world won't be watching.
Bright Futures was born in 1997 to the tune of $75 million, which that year helped pay for 42,000 students' college tuition. Those with at least 3.5 GPAs got full-rides to public state schools. Those with 3.0s got 75 percent of tuition covered.
The idea was to keep Florida's brightest students in Florida. Financial need has never been taken into account.
As the years went on, the number of students who got the scholarship ballooned by 320 percent to more than 177,000 students in 2009-2010, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. There was a slight uptick in students eligible for the award over the years, but it seems more so that a larger number of students are taking advantage of it. And that growth has affected the program's payout — last year that sum was more than $400 million.
For at least a decade, lawmakers have worried about the scholarship outpacing its flattening funding source, Florida Lottery revenues. And with each renewed inquiry come ideas for solutions, such as upping grade standards, lessening the amounts doled out, limiting the scholarship to students headed into high-demand professions and considering financial need.
But the scholarship program has continually proved too popular to seriously change. With the exception of a few tweaks — including recent tuition hikes not being covered by Bright Futures, a requirement that students who drop courses reimburse the state for the lost costs and tougher SAT and ACT standards beginning next year — the program is basically the same as always.
That's a good thing, said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who sits on the Senate's higher education committee.
Lynn said she thinks the Bright Futures program is a successful one, and she's eager to see the results of Hu's research.
"Certainly he'll have a fresh, new approach. And with that kind of money, certainly he'll be able to hire some tremendous researchers," she said.
She expects any new information about Bright Futures will help show how beneficial the scholarship is.
It's the reason why Lynn is also pleased that students who want Bright Futures money are now required to fill out the online Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, which was previously only necessary for federal financial need-based aid. The form provides extensive demographic and financial information, and the deadline to complete it is Friday.
A common criticism of Bright Futures is that it pays tuition for wealthy students who'd be able to pay on their own. But Lynn said she expects the data to prove otherwise.
Students across the financial spectrum need this scholarship, Lynn said, and she wants to protect it.
"We have to remember the merit-based purpose of this was to get more students in Florida to go to college," Lynn said. "It was intended to make sure our best and brightest stay in Florida."
So, does that happen? Do our best students not only perform well in college but stay in state after graduation?
Hu said answering the second part of question would be a logical next step.
For now, however, Hu is focused on collecting federal and state data on enrollment trends and college performance, including GPAs. The data will be scrubbed of identifying information and won't take financial need into account, Hu said, but it should paint a clear picture of whether Bright Futures "works."
If the scholarship does make a difference in the state, if it helps out a larger and better qualified batch of students, "That would have very interesting implications," Hu said.
"We'll have to wait and see."
Reach Kim Wilmath at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.