TALLAHASSEE — If there's a message that lawmakers are sending to the 184,000 college students receiving the state's most coveted scholarship, it's this: start working harder.
The Legislature is on track to approve standards for Florida's Bright Futures scholarships that would stiffen the penalties for students who don't meet academic requirements and shorten the amount of time recipients have to graduate.
The elevated standards — supported by university presidents, lobbyists and even some students who say it's time to make the award more prestigious — are included in the budget that is expected to pass out of the Legislature today. Gov. Charlie Crist must then sign the budget.
But more prestige will likely come with less money to put toward tuition, which hovers around $4,500 a year at the state's 11 public universities. Students will receive $1 less per credit hour if the new rules are approved. On average, recipients receive $2,500 a year.
The tougher standards accompany a push to raise SAT requirements over the next four years. For a partial Bright Futures scholarship, high school students currently need to score in the 44th percentile on the SAT or ACT to qualify. By 2014, they'll have to score in the 56th percentile — a 1050 SAT score.
Under the proposal, the Bright Futures scholarship will cover only classes needed to graduate. Right now, the award can cover 10 percent more than the requirements, giving students more wiggle room to explore different fields.
Additionally, the proposal reduces the amount of time students can use the scholarship from seven years to five years.
The changes, set to save the state over $100 million by full implementation in 2017, were originally pitched as a cost-saving measure as the state struggles with a $3.2 billion shortfall.
But the state is actually investing slightly more in education than in the previous year. Ultimately, the Bright Futures changes boil down to the reputation of the state's universities.
"We want to make sure that we reward top students," said Rep. William Proctor, R-St. Augustine, who heads the budget committee for state schools in the House.
A legislative analysis concluded that the new standards — if approved by Crist — would reduce the number of scholarship recipients by about 30 percent. The changes would also reduce the number of black recipients by nearly half.
With tuition expected to rise at least 15 percent next year, lawmakers say they are hoping universities rely more on enticing students with offers of need-based aid. At least 30 percent of money gained from an optional tuition increase — known as a differential — must go to need-based aid.
Robert Samuels can be reached at email@example.com.