The U.S. Department of Education's investigation into whether Florida's Bright Futures scholarships are structured so that they discriminate against Hispanic and African-American students should be useful. Another study already has predicted tougher standards would result in fewer scholarships for minority students. But the investigation by the department's civil rights office also should spur a broader state review of how this state awards financial aid to college students.
Florida's financial aid policy should have a coherent, two-fold purpose: making college affordable for promising poor students who couldn't otherwise pay, and offering the best and the brightest an incentive to stay in state to avoid a brain drain of top talent. Bright Futures does neither.
The state's system of need-based aid is woefully inadequate. And the achievement-based scholarship — Bright Futures — does not meet the Goldilocks test. It is not "just right." It freezes out too many poor and minority students with its rising SAT score cutoffs. But the requirements are too low for many affluent students who can afford test prep courses and typically have the advantage of better schools.
Family income and SAT scores are highly correlated. In effect, Bright Futures has become a way to cut the cost for better-off families who could afford college even without the scholarship's help. But the standards also don't separate the great student from the good one. And that means there is less money available for those who truly need it.
The University of Florida offers an example of the math. It estimates that a student entering this fall will owe $20,870 (of which only $6,630 would be tuition and fees). Even the top level of Bright Futures — the Academic Scholars — now pays about $3,100. That doesn't make much of a dent in the total price, and it is not going to make the difference between a poor student heading to Gainesville or staying home.
And yet Florida has become so selective that a vast majority of its admitted freshmen (85 percent) had straight A averages or better as well as high test scores. In fact, only 51 students were admitted with GPAs below 3.3. Basically, if you qualify for admission to UF, you qualify for Bright Futures. That's not a good system.
A Times/Herald report points out that at Florida International University, where about three-quarters of students are black or Hispanic, more than eight in 10 incoming freshmen once qualified for Bright Futures. Yet this fall, under the new minimum SAT score of 1170, FIU expects that only about 14 percent of its freshmen will qualify.
Bright Futures, for all of its popularity, is a program with problems: It's expensive for the state because so many qualify. Yet because it maxes out at a relatively low amount, it doesn't really help those who need it the most, and the top award is too small to keep the brightest students from entertaining better offers from out of state.
Spurred by the revived investigation by the federal Education Department's Office of Civil Rights, the state should rethink its system of financial aid. Give money to those who truly need it — those who qualify for admission but can't afford to attend. Give meaningful money to the academic stars you want to keep in state. But stop trying to meet both goals with one flawed program.