TALLAHASSEE — Florida's popular Bright Futures Scholarship is about to lose some of its luster.
Faced with a $3 billion budget deficit caused in part by diminishing lottery revenues, lawmakers are proposing a 2009-10 budget that does not raise Bright Futures scholarships to cover the 15 percent tuition hike most universities plan to start charging in the fall.
The move will save the state $34.4 million and will cost individual students at least $197 per year, to cover the base tuition increase of 8 percent that lawmakers plan to approve with the budget. That cost will nearly double for students if their school chooses to raise tuition a total of 15 percent, which they can do under separate legislation headed to Gov. Charlie Crist's desk.
"We don't have the money to cover it," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who leads the Senate's higher education budget committee.
Established in 1997, Bright Futures covers 75 or 100 percent of a Florida high school graduate's undergraduate tuition, as long as the student meets certain SAT and grade-point-average standards and attends a state school.
The budget proposal represents a dramatic shift in Bright Futures policy that will affect tens of thousands of Florida families who count on the program when budgeting for college. Moreover, it comes after years in which university leaders and many lawmakers warned that increased university enrollments and mediocre eligibility standards raise questions about the long-term viability of the lottery-backed scholarship program.
"Clearly, Bright Futures in the existing structure was not sustainable over time," said University of North Florida president John Delaney. "It appears today that what they're going to do is make it a fixed scholarship amount."
The tuition increase bill is sponsored by Bright Futures founder Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who has fiercely defended and protected the scholarship program since its inception. It's unclear if Pruitt supports passing the cost of higher tuition on to Bright Futures students.
Originally, lawmakers intended for the Bright Futures scholarships to cover the 8 percent base hike — and not the differential. But Lynn said that as the House and Senate moved into final budget negotiations this week, it became clear that wasn't possible. Instead, the House and Senate propose leaving scholarship amounts at current levels.
"We would love for it to pay for that tuition increase of 8 percent," Lynn said. "But we just don't have the money."
Bright Futures has been criticized since its inception for providing scholarships regardless of financial need and for setting low academic standards.
More than 95 percent of incoming UF freshmen are on Bright Futures, and the median annual income of all UF students' families is $100,000.
The cost of Bright Futures ballooned from $75 million the first year to $120 million the next as thousands of high school graduates met the scholarship's eligibility standards. The current budget proposal would provide $419 million in lottery dollars for Bright Futures.
Because the program puts the state on the hook for tens of thousands of tuition bills each year, lawmakers have long resisted raising tuition substantially. The result is that Florida's undergraduate tuition has for years been among the nation's lowest and would remain so even with the latest increases.
Only in the past few years did lawmakers start heeding presidents' pleas for higher tuition. The differential — already in place for UCF, FSU, UF, Florida International University and USF — is aimed at generating new revenues for need-based aid and for academic resources to strengthen undergraduate degree programs.
The tuition bill, headed to Crist's desk, expands the differential option to all 11 universities.
Gonzalo Garcia, a guidance resource specialist at King High School in Tampa, said he has expected something like this and for years has counseled families to pay attention to what goes on at the state level. "Will they be happy about it? Probably not," Garcia said. "But I think it would still be a value for them."
In other budget developments:
• Lawmakers agreed to cut $21.2 million in grants to local libraries next year, which will result in a loss of $8 million in matching federal funds. But the state will replace the lost federal money so that no jobs will be lost and no libraries will close.
• The House and Senate agreed to maintain funding for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and other rigorous high school courses.
• The Senate has backed away from a planned 15 percent cut to the Florida Virtual School's $116 million budget, using the House model to eliminate class-size reduction funds and other measures. The total funds-per-student reduction would be about 10 percent, the Senate says.
Staff writers Amy Hollyfield, Steve Bousquet, Marc Caputo, Patricia Mazzei and Rick Danielson contributed to this report.