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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Florida Looks to Overhaul 'Bright Futures' Scholarship Program

Tampa Bay Online

TAMPA - Only the richest and smartest students will get Bright Futures scholarships if lawmakers keep cutting them, says a lawmaker who wants to overhaul the 13-year-old program.

State Rep. John Tobia has filed a bill to create five scholarship levels for students attending Florida public universities, each paying a different tuition percentage for those with SAT scores ranging from 970 to 1400. Bright Futures now has three levels.

Tobia, a Satellite Beach Republican, said his proposal will save the state money and maintain opportunity for the highest achievers while offering help to students from low-income families.

Financial need has never been a factor in awarding Bright Futures scholarships, which are funded by lottery players. Lottery research shows about half the game's players are low to moderate income.

Tobia, who teaches government at Valencia Community College, concedes his bill might not get far this session. House education leaders say they have no plans to change the popular program.

But costs keep rising for a public university education in Florida, even for Bright Futures students. Lawmakers approved a 15 percent tuition increase last year while capping Bright Futures payments at the previous year's level.

In the legislative session now under way, Senate leaders propose keeping the caps in place again though tuition will likely rise.

They're also considering raising the academic requirements. A 3.5 grade average and 1270 SAT score now gets a student a scholarship worth about 87 percent of university tuition. A 3.0 grade average and 970 SAT means two-thirds of tuition is paid.

A typical 15-hour load at the University of South Florida this year costs about $4,500 in tuition.

If this keeps up, Tobia said, lawmakers will be forced to look at an overhaul.

"By the time my daughter goes, it will cost $14,000," to attend a state university, even with Bright Futures, he said. At that rate, the best and brightest students the scholarship was created for will start leaving the state, he said.

Tobia said he wants to keep the top students, but he also wants to offer something to moderate achievers who have financial needs.

So the first of his five levels would pay full tuition at a community college or state college to any student with at least a 3.0 grade point average and 970 SAT score or ACT equivalent.

Here are the other levels he proposes:

25 percent of university tuition for students with a 3.0 grade average and 970 SAT score or ACT equivalent.

50 percent of university tuition for a 3.5 grade average and 1200 SAT.

75 percent for a 3.5 grade average and 1300 SAT.

100 percent for a 4.0 grade average and 1400 SAT.

Tobia said the new configuration would save the state about $20 million a year, but he's waiting for an assessment from the Legislature's policy and accountability office.

The Bright Futures program costs the state about $450 million a year, more than twice as much as seven years ago. That's mostly because more students qualify every year.

Bright Futures is an important program, but it can't continue without limits, said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, an Ormond Beach Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Committee. The committee discussed Bright Futures changes Tuesday.

But State Rep. Seth McKeel, a Lakeland Republican, said the House is not yet considering any changes to Bright Futures funding or qualifications.

Some education experts have questioned whether scholarships ought to be based upon standarized test scores at all. This has not stopped high-school students from taking SAT prep courses.
"We're being cautious," said McKeel, chairman of the House State Universities and Private Colleges Policy Committee.

Bright Futures is expensive, he said, but "it's certainly been very beneficial to a lot of students and lots of families."

"You don't make changes to programs like that without real study and contemplation."