Florida lawmakers are expected to finally restrain the runaway costs of the state's popular Bright Futures scholarship program. But their solution — simply cutting the awards for every recipient rather than tailoring the scholarships to serve Florida's best or neediest students — is a squandered opportunity for real reform in this time of limited resources. This is the wrong way to get to the correct conclusion.
The last-minute revelation this week that Bright Futures may not cover any of the 15 percent tuition increase expected at most state universities this fall means some 150,000 college students have little warning their scholarships will not go as far as expected. That's unfair. Lawmakers have known for years that Bright Futures was a fiscal drain on the state and did nothing to address it. In the coming week, they should find the money to cover the base tuition increase of 8 percent and then plan to tackle a complete overhaul next year.
Bright Futures was created in 1997 to quiet complaints that lottery money was not enhancing education, and the problems were immediately clear. Due to generous awards — up to 100 percent of tuition — and lax qualification requirements, analysts warned the program would eventually grow too expensive. The program cost $419 million this year, up from $75 million in its first year.
A student can qualify for a scholarship with just a B average in high school and an SAT score that is 51 points below the national average — standards now far below the freshman admission requirements for many of the state's public universities. The result is at the University of Florida, where the average median family income of the freshman class is $100,000, 95 percent of freshmen receive Bright Futures scholarships, meaning they're paying little or no tuition.
What's more, linking Bright Futures directly to tuition for the past 12 years suppressed tuition rates, because the state became the major tuition payer. That has meant fewer faculty hires, and now Florida universities have the worst faculty-to-student ratio in the nation.
Lawmakers plan to set next year's scholarships at a level equal to or 1 percent less than the 2008-09 awards. This is a back-door way to get at the problem, and it is unfair to students already making plans for the fall.
The value of Bright Futures should not be tied dollar for dollar to the cost of tuition, but that change needs to be part of an entire overhaul with plenty of notice. Requirements for the merit scholarships need to be raised, and some of the money should be awarded based on financial need. Now the state is subsidizing too many unremarkable students whose families have the means to afford college nearly anywhere in the nation. That's a poor priority for scant resources.
Reform to Bright Futures is long overdue, but the Legislature's plan is not reform. It is a clumsy, ill-timed fix to a problem lawmakers have avoided dealing with for more than a decade.