Major changes to Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships appear to be fading in Tallahassee amid loud protests from students, parents and educators.
The shift away from the state Senate’s most unpopular proposals for the program doesn’t mean that the awards are out of the woods, though.
In its budget recommendations, the state House has called for the suspension of the $600 stipend that Bright Futures top-level recipients get each year to offset the cost of textbooks. The Higher Education Appropriations subcommittee further suggested ending the Access to Better Learning and Education (ABLE) grant that helps Floridians attend for-profit private colleges and universities, and changing the criteria to use the Effective Access to Student Education (EASE) grant that supports attendance at nonprofit institutions.
Chairman Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican, said he attempted in his draft budget to keep financial aid flowing to students who need it. He never considered changing the Bright Futures amounts to an annual legislative decision.
But in a tough budget year, he said, the Legislature needs to think about ways to eliminate some recurring expenses. He said the ideas he put forth will help students and save money.
Ending the textbook stipend, at a projected savings of $37 million, would be paired with legislation to expand the state’s provision of free open-access textbooks, Plasencia said.
Some universities have about one-fifth of their textbooks available online. The bill would back the growth of a statewide collection of materials that students at all universities could use.
The Bright Futures money, by contrast, went only to the students who got the highest-level awards. The state could better use its resources to reduce textbook prices for all, and “not just a select few,” he said.
He argued that shifting the approximately $40 million in ABLE and EASE grants would better use the limited funds, as well.
The state cannot justify giving taxpayer money to for-profit schools during financially lean times, Plasencia argued. And it should not encourage students to take on debt at nonprofit private universities with poor track records of graduation rates and other important outcomes, he added.
He noted that the $2,800 annual EASE grant does not cover the entire cost of a private university education. If students still must borrow, he said, they should know they’re attending schools that graduate their students into meaningful opportunities.
The House proposal would eliminate the use of EASE grants at 16 of the 34 institutions where students have been able to use them. The criteria would include academic retention rate, on-time graduation rate and student placement rate after graduation.
These recommendations raised questions among some of the same people who challenged the Senate’s Bright Futures ideas. One key worry: Students could lose their means to afford education after high school.
Cassandra Colletti, a Volusia County mom, has two sons attending college and a third preparing to enter the University of Florida. Bright Futures will make UF affordable, Colletti said, and her son Joey knew it as he worked to keep his grades up and took the ACT three times to earn an eligible score.
“I’m nervous to base a five-year decision on whether or not they’re going to fulfill it each year,” said Colletti, who has been asking lawmakers not to change the scholarship.
Even the textbook stipend matters to families, she noted: “That’s $600 I don’t have.”
Bob Boyd, president of Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, told lawmakers that the proposed EASE changes also would hurt families.
“It balances the budget on the backs of students,” Boyd said.
He put the concept in terms of school choice, which lawmakers have strongly supported in K-12 education.
“This is funding that goes directly to the students,” Boyd said, “and the students decide where to attend. Why would you penalize a student based on the metrics of a school, if a student chooses to attend? ... We don’t impose these metrics ... on K-12 voucher programs.”
Plasencia contended that students still can use the grants, just at schools that provide better outcomes. His proposals go to the full House Appropriations Committee for consideration.
Senate Education Appropriations chairman Doug Broxson, who did not include these ideas in his budget proposal, said he had not yet discussed the ideas. He expected differences between the two chambers to be worked out in conference negotiations.