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Teens fret over Bright Futures rules as college deadlines loom

The coronavirus has made it more difficult to qualify for the scholarship. But ‘very good news’ is coming soon, education commissioner Richard Corcoran says.

Nikki Gunning faces a dilemma this week.

The graduating Sunlake High School senior dreams of becoming a veterinarian, with a biochemistry degree at the University of Florida the first stop along the way. But to make that happen, she needs a full Bright Futures Scholarship, and her test scores put her just shy of qualifying.

In ordinary times, that wouldn’t prove a major concern. Gunning would have two more opportunities to take the SAT, for which the straight-A Pasco County student-athlete is confident she’d pick up the points.

These aren’t ordinary times, though. The SAT has canceled all exams until August — that’s after the fall UF semester begins — and some of the universities have a May 1 deadline to make deposits to secure a spot.

Some, including the University of South Florida, have offered a two-week extension for the payment. The ACT has June and July exams scheduled.

“I’ve been taught not to go into debt,” said Gunning, who’s been accepted to 15 schools and is weighing her options. “Financially, UF ... is kind of a stretch because I’d have to live in the dorm.”

Her family, like thousands of others in Florida, is left sweating out the choice of whether to make their university deposit, and where, without being able to complete their Bright Futures process. They’ve called lawmakers and state officials, seeking more clarity on whether the state will hold them accountable for the test scores and volunteer hours they haven’t had the chance to improve because of COVID-19.

The scholarships cover up to 100 percent of tuition and many fees at in-state institutions, plus $300 every semester to cover college-related expenses for those who receive the top award. More than 101,000 students received Bright Futures awards last year.

More than 8,000 people have signed a Change.org petition seeking an extended deadline to meet the scholarship requirements.

“Every day I’ve checked the Bright Futures website” seeking updates, said Krissy Eckholdt, whose son Caleb, a senior at Harmony High in St. Cloud, had hoped to boost his SAT score by 10 points to earn a Medallion level award that would help him afford the University of South Florida.

She noted that the state Department of Education has offered seniors waivers on tests that are graduation requirements, and given teachers passes to take certification exams without charge. Yet when it comes to this scholarship that will impact teens’ academic lives for the next four years, nothing has emerged but a scrolling message that the eligibility requirements are being looked at.

“It’s so frustrating that time is passing and we don’t have any more information to make a decision,” Eckholdt said. “It feels like, from a layperson’s perspective, they’re not even working on it.”

That’s not the case, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran said. It’s just that a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations must take place as officials try to craft a plan that could cost millions of d ollars.

Unlike the testing and teacher certification waivers, a change to Bright Futures rules would require more than executive action regarding the Lottery trust fund money that funds most of the scholarship. The education department cannot spend that money on its own, so it must go through legal processes, including negotiations with the Legislature.

If an agreement is reached, then the department would need to work out the details of which students would qualify for what type of financial support. The model would have to anticipate that every potentially eligible teen would take the deal, even if in the end many choose not to do so.

“We are well aware of the issues surrounding Bright Futures,” Corcoran said. “We are working on a solution, and we plan to have an announcement that will be very good news in the next couple of weeks.”

Eckholdt’s son, Caleb, who wants to study music at USF, said he could land at Valencia College — which doesn’t have his program — if he can’t get the scholarship. He welcomed any possibility that the state might extend deadlines or provide options that could allow him to pursue his goal.

“It’s a little scary knowing they may or may not come out with a decision that helps me or hurts me,” he said. “I’ve worked really hard. Changes need to be made.”

Lawmakers from both parties said they would support the DeSantis administration in taking steps to help these students.

“This is a legitimate concern for families,” said state Rep. Ardian Zika, a Land O’Lakes Republican who sits on the House PreK-12 Appropriations committee. “I hope there is some solution for families.”

Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat who sits on the Senate Education committee, said the scholarship requirements are set forth in state law, so a permanent change would require legislative action. But during a crisis like the current one, Cruz continued, executive relief could offer a resolution.

“So many families rely on this,” Cruz said. “Bright Futures is not need-based, but for many families, it is. Lots of kids wouldn’t be going to college without it.”

Such could be the case for Caitlyn Patton, another Sunlake High senior whose path depends on a test score she can’t earn, after spending lots of money on tutoring to do better. Her grandmother, Jody Pankey, said she has been counting on Bright Futures to allow Caitlyn to begin her studies for cardiology at USF or the University of Central Florida.

Pankey said she told her grandchildren, whom she is raising, to get the grades, earn the dual enrollment and Advanced Placement credits, and do all the work needed to make college possible. Caitlyn did her part, she said, only to run into hurdles beyond her control.

“This is something that we found critical. We were very hopeful for it,” Pankey said of the scholarship. Without it, “We’re going to have to start with junior college and go from there.”

Karin Gunning, Nikki’s mom, said she hoped the state — which has espoused a philosophy of “compassion and grace” during the pandemic — will find a way to assist the teens.

“This isn’t like canceling the prom or graduation,” she said. “This affects them for four years. And this could easily be solved.”

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