Column: Making futures bright for all

Published Apr. 11, 2013

Many Floridians are understandably concerned about new guidelines to the Bright Futures scholarship that could sharply reduce the number of minority and low-income students who receive the scholarship.

All students deserve an equal opportunity to pursue a college education. State policymakers and Florida's public universities should be especially sensitive to the needs of black, Hispanic and other minority students, who attend many college campuses in numbers that remain far too low.

However, the guidelines approved by Florida lawmakers in 2011 and set to take effect July 1 will ensure Bright Future's continued survival — a highly uncertain outcome without this action. For that reason, I support the change, while urging the state and its universities to recommit to developing alternative sources of support for increasing access to all students who need help pursuing their college ambitions.

When the Florida Legislature created the Bright Futures scholarship in 1997, lawmakers never intended the program to help students based on their racial status or family income.

Rather, the scholarship had only one purpose: to provide a financial incentive for Florida's most academically talented students to attend the state's public universities, raising the quality of their experience in college and improving our universities as a whole.

Bright Futures proved hugely successful in achieving that goal — too successful, as it turns out.

The program helped to increase the quality of applicants to Florida's universities, including UF — where entering students in 2012 had an average GPA of 4.3 and an SAT of 1951 for the total test.

However, Bright Futures also proved more popular with Floridians than its creators ever imagined.

When the program was created, 42,000 scholarships were awarded at a cost to the state of $75 million. By 2011, the number of beneficiaries grew to 174,000 — and the costs had skyrocketed to nearly $343 million.

Funding for the program comes from Florida Lottery money — a wellspring that quickly proved problematic when the economy stalled a few years ago and lottery revenues fell.

Concerned about the looming impact on Florida's budget, lawmakers two years ago sought to shore up Bright Futures' finances by raising the minimum ACT and SAT scores, reducing the number of students eligible for the scholarship. The minimum SAT score initially rose from 980 to 1050 and will climb to 1170 (excluding the writing score) on July 1.

That decision will keep Bright Futures on sound financial footing, ensuring that huge numbers of students will continue to benefit. If the new standard were applied to UF's incoming class of 2013, more than 75 percent of the students would still qualify for Bright Futures.

However, the new guidelines are also likely to reduce the number of eligible minority and low-income students because they tend to have lower standardized test scores. While the impacts are likely to be less pronounced at UF than other universities because of the extremely high quality of all our applicants, there remains serious cause for concern.

The answer is not to keep in place a Bright Futures scholarship that was rapidly growing so expensive as to be unsustainable.

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Rather, it is for universities and the state to prioritize developing and sustaining other means of supporting minority and low-income students.

UF has created one such source of support with its Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars program.

This program pays tuition and room and board for students who are the first in their families to attend college and whose families earn less than $40,000 annually. Since our first class of students arrived in 2006, the program has enabled more than 2,600 students to attend UF, a majority of whom are Hispanic and African-American.

To be sure, Florida Opportunity Scholars, which costs about $12.5 million annually, is a major expense. But we have an ongoing fundraising campaign to make it self-sustaining, and we are committed to continuing to support the program until we reach our goal.

State lawmakers or other universities may develop their own successful means for assisting minority and low-income students.

As the Bright Futures guidelines take effect, what's important is to take action now to minimize the impact — and ensure that all qualified students have an opportunity to pursue their college dreams.

Bernie Machen is president of the University of Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.