The state has spent nearly $3 billion in Lottery revenue for the popular Bright Futures merit scholarship program since it started in 1997. That's the size of the budget deficit lawmakers are facing in 2010-11.
So legislators crafting next year's higher education budget are considering changes — some of them significant and controversial — to the program.
Among the options outlined during a meeting of the Senate higher education budget committee Thursday: Raise the required SAT and ACT scores and grades to qualify (saving as much as $20 million) — a move that's been batted down for many years because it would shut out a significant number of minorities.
Lawmakers could limit participation by setting a family income threshold or save as much as $33 million a year by reducing the maximum number of credit hours covered for students who come in with, say, 30 hours of high school advanced placement credits. And they could eliminate the ability of students who lose Bright Futures because of poor college grades to get the scholarship back (saving at least $4 million).
But given that Bright Futures is such a sacred political cow, the real question is how far will lawmakers go in an election year.
"There seems to be a desire to do something," said Senate budget chairwoman Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. "I don't think we have consensus yet on which ones, but we need to do something."
Parents and students have come to depend on it, and until the past few years, legislators were loathe to mess with it — in spite of long-running concerns about mediocre academic standards for eligibility, and resulting rising costs to the state.
More than 95 percent of incoming University of Florida freshmen are on Bright Futures, and most of the freshmen at Florida State University and the University of South Florida get the scholarship.
Lawmakers in the past few years have started to tweak the program — passing bills that kept the award amount flat even as tuition rose, and requiring students to pay back any Bright Futures-covered classes that they drop late in the semester.
"Any change we make, we have to look at how it would affect students, and above all will it still encourage students to go to college in Florida, which was always the aim?" Lynn said. "We'll have to see if people are willing to do what's best for students and for the state … or are they going to play politics?"
Gerard Williams, a student at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, cautioned lawmakers against making changes that could make college unaffordable for low-income students. He is attending Santa Fe on a local scholarship and grants, but he has many friends who depend on Bright Futures.
"They're looking at this as just numbers and money, but they need to look at us as real students," Williams said. "Education is the wrong place to be looking at to save money."