TALLAHASSEE — Raising four kids with college-sized ambitions, truck driver Osse Eugene's financial plan has long relied on the prospects of Bright Futures scholarships.
He has pushed his children to study hard in hopes of netting the scholarship, which covers nearly all in-state tuition costs for some 184,000 college students studying in Florida.
But Eugene's attention now is focused less on his children's classroom performance and more on what lawmakers are doing in Tallahassee. The Senate's education committee last week approved a budget measure that raises the scholarship's qualification standards while freezing the amount of money each student will receive, even as tuition rates continue to rocket.
"I don't make enough money to send them to college," the 46-year-old from Hallandale Beach said. "Even to feed them, I barely make it."
Eugene has reason to be concerned. Currently, a high school senior needs a 3.0 grade-point average and an SAT or ACT score in the 41st percentile to secure a partial Bright Futures scholarship. By 2014 — if the measure is approved — students would need to score in the 56th percentile.
For a full scholarship, a high school senior needs a 3.5 average and an SAT or ACT score in the 87th percentile. By 2014, that would rise to the 89th percentile.
If the changes were enacted this year, according to state education records, one in three eligible high school seniors would no longer qualify for the scholarship. That means that out of 164,258 current high school seniors, about 29 percent would qualify, rather than 39 percent — 14,785 fewer students.
The cuts also would mean that 45 percent fewer black students and 40 percent fewer Hispanics would get into the program than currently qualify, according to a legislative analysis. Of students who currently receive free or reduced lunches, four out of 10 would be cut.
"Typically the income is highly correlated to the test score, so the higher you make the test score, you are going to start pushing the low-income kids out," said Billie Jo Hamilton, the financial aid director at the University of South Florida, where 95 percent of incoming freshman have received the scholarship.
Even so, Tom Furlong, interim president of St. Petersburg College and a representative of the state's community college consortium, has supported the proposal, saying everyone wins when standards are raised.
"We know our students and our students will be impacted. But the time has come for tough decisions and we support your efforts," Furlong told a Senate committee.
The changes are fueled by economics, said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, the Ormond Beach Republican who heads the Senate's budget committee.
Established in 1997, the Bright Futures scholarship program has succeeded in its mission to keep qualified students in the state by offering cheaper tuition rates and encouraging poorer students to apply for college. The number of students who have qualified for the scholarship has tripled since its start, data show, rising faster than the lottery revenues that finance it. The fund is now $6 million short.
Lynn sees no way around cuts to the program.
"When the budget is tight, you are forced to make changes," Lynn said. "Or you won't have the program at all."
Raising the qualifications would save the state more than $100 million by the proposal's full implementation in 2017-18, as fewer students qualify for the scholarship. Even more money would be saved through a mandate that students use the scholarship money within four years, as opposed to seven.
For others on Lynn's committee, the issue was more about principle than finances. Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democrat from Miami Beach, argued that the state shouldn't make it harder for students to go to college during such tough times, when more students would like to attend.
But Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, contended the proposal will pay off for students in the end.
"We have to increase the standards and we have to move the bar higher for our students so they could have more to achieve," Constantine said.
Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, have suggested the state must find ways to provide need-based aid if standards become stricter.
Bright Futures applicants are not required to fill out federal forms for student aid, so legislators say there is no way to tell how many recipients actually need the money. The proposal calls for colleges to start collecting those forms.
Thomas Breslin, who heads the faculty senate at Florida International University, would agree on the need for aid. Only 19 percent of students there graduate in four years.
"We have a huge percentage of students who have to work to support themselves or their families so they come part time," Breslin said. "This could be a very heavy burden on them."
And for the students, the prospect of changes can mean only one thing: more studying.
Said Anneliese Delgado-Cate of Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg: "We do give a lot of money away to kids who probably haven't been working as hard as other kids. … People who truly do well in high school and have high aspirations and high goals, they are going to find scholarships and ways to pay for college even if Bright Futures isn't going to help them."
Robert Samuels can be reached at [email protected]