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Bright Futures changes could impact thousands of Hispanic and black students

The new James Center for Molecular and Life Sciences on Eckerd College’s campus in St. Petersburg. Future students will have to score higher on tests to earn Bright Futures college scholarships.
Published Apr. 3, 2013

Bright Futures was always a program designed to reward high-achieving high school students by helping shoulder the cost of college.

But now, students will have to score higher on tests to reap those rewards. And stricter eligibility requirements may have a drastic impact on students, particularly minorities, a new study shows.

An analysis from the University of South Florida's Office of Admissions, Recruitment and Enrollment Planning predicts a staggering drop in Bright Futures awards to incoming college freshman throughout the state in fall 2014. The study, based on state freshman applicant data from 2010 and 2011, concludes:

• The number of black freshmen with Bright Futures scholarships may drop by 75 percent.

• Hispanic freshmen with Bright Futures may drop by more than 60 percent.

• Asian and white freshmen with the scholarships may drop by more than 40 percent.

• Eight of Florida's 12 state universities may be hit the hardest. Fewer than a quarter of students at Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical, Florida Gulf Coast and the University of West Florida will have a Bright Futures scholarship under the new requirements. Fewer than half will have the scholarships at the University of Central Florida, University of North Florida and USF.

The University of Florida, Florida State and New College of Florida are likely to be less impacted with 65 to 90 percent of students still qualifying.

A roadblock like this could keep already struggling students out of college, said J. Robert Spatig, USF's assistant vice president for admissions, who sought data and crunched the numbers statewide after examining impacts at his own school.

"If you're a low-middle or low socioeconomic status student, you're going to be discouraged," Spatig said. "You're going to say, 'There's no way I can afford this without going into a lot of debt.' "

Test scores are the key factor.

To qualify for Bright Futures, high school students graduating during the 2013-14 academic year must score at least 1170 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT and earn a high school GPA of 3.0, in addition to completing volunteer hours. Currently, students have to score 1020 on the SAT or 22 on the ACT, plus have a 3.0 GPA and volunteer hours.

When the program began in 1997, minimum scores were 970 for the SAT and 20 for the ACT.

Patterned after Georgia's HOPE scholarship program and funded primarily by the Florida Lottery, Bright Futures has transformed piece-by-piece over the years. The program once paid 75 to 100 percent of a student's in-state tuition. As the economy suffered, lawmakers were faced with less lottery money, more students and rising tuition. They began enacting caps, raising standards and doing away with things like a college-related expense allowance. Under the current structure, a student collects anywhere from $38 to $100 per credit hour.

At the same time, an achievement gap rages on. Hispanic and black male students already lag behind their white peers on test scores and graduation rates, while Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic group in the country.

"There continues to be a clear need to reform Florida's most popular scholarship program, because when the program is moving in a direction that impacts its fastest-growing school-aged population this way, you know it's a program that's moving farther away from Florida's talent pool," said Braulio Colon, executive director of the Florida College Access Network, a nonprofit advocacy group based at USF.

The new standards are already law. But FCAN hopes to gain traction for twin House and Senate bills that would reverse last year's legislation and keep eligibility requirements where they are now. That would slow the process, Colon said, and allow for other reform suggestions.

FCAN proposes a sliding scale for the Bright Futures calculation that factors in both GPA and test scores. For instance, a student who maintains a high GPA but doesn't test well still would have a shot at the scholarship.

"We think it's a more balanced approach and it gives equal weight to GPA and test scores," Colon said. "Students should be given more credit for their four years of work."

FCAN leaders also would like to see Bright Futures awarded, in part, based on financial need.

From the start, critics of the program have called it wrong to award students without a financial need for middling performance. Bright Futures often was viewed as a scholarship for the wealthy.

In fact, more than 40 percent of students who currently qualify for Bright Futures also are eligible for federal aid including Pell Grants, and 24 percent are eligible for state and university aid. That data came from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid applications that students now have to fill out before getting a Bright Futures award.

The FAFSA form requirement, which went into law in 2011, was controversial on its own. Some students and parents said the form was a pain, that they almost missed the deadline and they didn't want to disclose financial information. University financial aid officers said the law led to a big increase in workload.

Lawmakers are working to reverse that requirement. That move wouldn't be at odds with adding a need-based element to Bright Futures, Colon said. Students who need aid still would fill out the FAFSA. FCAN suggests giving any student meeting the minimum criteria an annual award of $1,000, with or without the FAFSA.

Yanlie Milian, a junior at Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg, moved to Florida four years ago from Cuba. She dreams of going to the University of Florida, she said, and will need all the scholarship money she can get.

She has a 3.6 GPA and recently took the ACT.

"When you take the ACT, it's timed," said Milian, 16. "For me, I can already understand what I'm reading in English, but for some people, they have to see the words and translate it in their minds. It takes a little more time."

She hasn't gotten her scores back yet.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394.

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