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Insurance fines to fund scholarship

Hundreds of Florida students who can't afford to attend college are close to getting their hands on some scholarship money, thanks to insurance companies caught cheating customers.

A $26-million program passed Friday by the Legislature will start with money charged to Prudential Insurance Co. in February after the company was caught tricking tens of thousands of customers into buying insurance.

The only string attached: Recipients must take a course in business ethics.

"We have taken something that's bad, namely deceiving the public," said Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, "and turned it into something good."

The program eventually will create 750 scholarships a year for students who attend the state's universities, community colleges and private schools. At first, $10-million from the $15-million Prudential settlement will create 575 scholarships of $2,500 each, specifically to the 10 state universities.

Besides the Prudential money, officials expect the trust fund will get $3-million from a pending penalty against John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. Of that money, a third will go to scholarships for private schools and the rest will be set aside for community colleges.

Nelson said the cash would be matched with private donations, bringing the total value of the program to $26-million. The money will be invested, and scholarships will be available every year.

Legislators approved the program on the final day of their special session as they agreed to borrow billions of dollars to ease Florida's crowded schools.

"This will go a long way toward helping many kids get through school and help put them in the direction we think they should be in," said state Sen. Donald Sullivan, R-Seminole, one of the sponsors of the legislation.

Lawmakers said it was particularly important to set money aside for need-based aid, since the number of merit scholarships has increased in recent years.

"Many of the students that I represent can't afford to go to the state universities," said state Sen. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa.

Legislators said the money for private colleges will help students who don't want a public education.

"There are some students in the state who want to have a religion-based education," said Rep. Bob Casey, R-Gainesville. "That's choice."