News Column

Scott, Crist both face criticism for changes to Bright Futures program

September 1, 2014

By Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster, Tampa Tribune, Fla.



Sept. 01--TALLAHASSEE -- The battle over Bright Futures has begun.

But while Charlie Crist keeps criticizing Gov. Rick Scott over changes to the popular merit-based scholarship program in the years since Scott took office, some of the key changes were put in place while Crist was in the governor's mansion.

Since fiscal 2010-11, the number of students receiving a Bright Futures scholarship has declined from 179,076 students in 2010-11 to 154,160 in fiscal 2013-14. That number is expected to continue to drop. The state estimates about 83,571 students will receive a Bright Futures scholarship in fiscal 2017-18.

Troy Miller, a senior researcher and policy analyst at the Florida College Access Network, said the state made several changes through the years that led to the decrease in recipients and costs.

Among those changes were efforts to increase the SAT and ACT requirements to qualify and a legislative decision to pay a flat rate instead of 100 percent or 75 percent of tuition costs.

Established in 1997, Bright Futures expanded an existing program for high-achieving high school students. The goal of the program was to help students who "would likely be successful in higher education," Miller said.

"Bright Futures was not established to keep the best and the brightest in the state," he said. "It was to encourage that kid of mass point underneath the very best and the brightest."

When it was established, the scholarship paid for either 100 percent or 75 percent of a student's tuition at state colleges or universities, depending on a student's grade point average and college entrance exam score.

In 2009, the state Legislature tossed out the 100 percent and 75 percent coverage in favor of flat rates. In fiscal 2014-15, a Florida Academic Scholar would be awarded $103 per credit hour at a state university for a four-year program; a Florida Medallion Scholar would receive $77 per credit hour.

During the 2010 legislative session, credit hour award amounts were reduced in the state budget. That same year, lawmakers began increasing SAT/ACT test scores needed to qualify for the two college-bound scholarships -- the Florida Academic Scholar and the Medallion Scholar programs.

"We supported some cutbacks to Bright Futures at the time, when it was very clear the state had a budget gap," Miller said. "It was very serious. There were cuts across all policy areas."

Crist, the state's former Republican governor, served from 2007 until 2011.

"I'm shocked he wants to bring it up because what he did is devastating," Scott said. "The thing that should disappoint people is when Charlie took office, Bright Futures covered pretty much everything, but they don't cover his 15 percent (tuition) differential that he signed."

According to the state Office of Student Financial Assistance, lawmakers signed off on changes to test score requirements during the 2011 legislative session.

In 1997-98, students needed to score a 970 on the SAT or a 20 on the ACT to qualify for Florida Medallion Scholars, the mid-level scholarship. By 2012-13, the required scores had increased to 980 on the SAT and 21 on the ACT.

This year a student must score an 1170 on the SAT and a 26 on the ACT to qualify for the Florida Medallion scholarship. By comparison, a Florida Academic Scholar recipient needs to score a 1290 on the SAT and a 29 on the ACT to qualify.

Lawmakers in 2011 also increased community service requirements for all award levels. While Florida Academic Scholars had previously been required to do community service, those students competing for the Florida Medallion scholarship did not.

That changed in 2011, according to the Office of Student Financial Assistance, when the Medallion Scholars were required to complete 75 hours of community service to be eligible for the program.

Lori Brooks, the coordinator of school counseling services for the Lee County School District, said fewer Lee County students have been getting the scholarship in the past few years. Brooks said she thinks part of the reason was because of the "drastic change in the program requirements."

"One of the biggest changes has been what Rick Scott has done," Crist said. "The bottom line is, he's cut it in half. What matters to me is about 30,000 fewer students are going to have the opportunity (to go to college). It's unconscionable."

Crist said he would work to restore the cuts to the Bright Futures program if elected. The program costs dropped from $429 million in 2008-09 to $306.9 million in 2013-14. That sum is expected to continue to decrease: the state estimates that the cost will drop to $180.4 million by 2017-18.

Scott said he's already making strides to make higher education more affordable. This year, Scott signed a measure that removed universities' ability to raise tuition above the amount set by the state Legislature. The bill also removed the provision that allows for automatic inflationary increases at postsecondary institutions.

And while educators said they'd like more students to take part in the Bright Futures program, some said they understand why the state has made getting a scholarship tougher.

"There has been some discussion, and this is just in the community, that Bright Futures is trying to minimize the amount of money (spent) on students and the way to do that is to raise the bar," Brooks said. "My personal philosophy is that the standards with Bright Futures should be in alignment for college admission."

jmbuzzacco@naplesnews.com

(239) 263-4805

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(c)2014 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)

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