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2008 September 21 - 12:00 am

Popular Bright Futures Penalizes Needy Florida Students, Critics Say

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP)—Until he heard about Bright Futures, 18-year-old Frank Jaffe thought he’d go to college out of state, perhaps to New York University or Temple University.

Bright Futures, though, was a deal he couldn’t refuse. Florida’s largest scholarship program for university, community college and vocational students now pays 75 percent of Jaffe’s tuition at Florida State University, where he is a freshman majoring in merchandising.

“It makes it hard to go out of state when you can go in-state for almost nothing,” said Jaffe, even though his father is a doctor and could have paid his tuition. “Our family doesn’t really need it, but we certainly like it. We take advantage of everything the state would offer us.”

Jaffe is one of 170,000 students statewide benefiting from the program. More than 90 percent of incoming freshmen at some campuses and nearly half of all undergraduates at Florida’s 11 public universities get Bright Futures grants, whether they need the money or not. For some, the program pays 100 percent of tuition.

Bright Futures, paid for by $436 million in lottery proceeds, is based entirely on merit. Needy students who fall short on grades or test scores get nothing, although those at the lowest income rungs can qualify for other assistance. Students who don’t maintain their grades in college lose their scholarship money.

Supporters say Bright Futures encourages high school students to excel in and out of the classroom, rewarding those who get good grades, achieve high test scores and perform community service. The program also combats brain-drain by keeping many of Florida’s brightest students away from out-of-state schools, they say.

“There’s a lot to be said for receiving aid because you worked for it,” said state Rep. Marti Coley, chairwoman of the House Post-Secondary Committee. The Republican lawmaker noted that Bright Futures helps students from families who are financially stressed yet still make too much money to get need-based aid.

Opponents, though, say Bright Futures causes economic problems by artificially depressing tuition rates at Florida’s state schools, where tuition ranges from about $3,400 to just under $4,000 for in-state students, among the lowest in the country. That means more state taxes have to be diverted to the colleges, popular schools cap enrollment and some programs lack funding.

Bright Futures is growing faster than the lottery’s ability to pay for it, opponents say, eating a bigger share of profits every year and cutting into funds for elementary and secondary schools.

They also argue that Bright Futures is fundamentally unfair, helping the rich at the expense of the poor, who buy lots of lottery tickets but are the least likely to qualify for the scholarships.

Critics sometimes call Bright Futures the “BMW scholarship” because the windfall allows parents to use college savings for other purposes, such as buying their children fancy cars.

“Go around the universities and look at the BMWs and Corvettes—it’s embarrassing,” said Charles Reed, a former chancellor of Florida’s State University system who is now chancellor of the California State University system. At its inception in 1997, Reed called Bright Futures “one of the worst” public policies ever. He’s since changed that to “the worst.”

“It does not have any need-based criteria, so the upper-middle class and the wealthy get rewarded,” Reed said in a telephone interview. “It has to be one of the best giveaway programs in America.”

There’s nothing like it in California, which has only a need-based financial aid program. The only program similar to Bright Futures is Georgia’s Hope Scholarship.

In Florida, though, there’s little appetite for change and vast public support for the program.

Just ask state Sen. Jeremy Ring. Hoping to encourage more students to go into math, science and technology, he introduced a bill this year to increase Bright Futures grants in those fields while reducing them for other majors. Ring dropped his idea after an outpouring of opposition from students and parents. A “Protect Your Bright Futures” page on the Facebook social-networking Web site drew nearly 20,000 members in three weeks.

“I was really surprised by the response because we weren’t doing anything to get rid of Bright Futures,” Ring said. He called the scholarship program “a third-rail issue,” meaning that anyone who touches it will suffer a quick political death.

It’s so sensitive that State University System Chancellor Mark Rosenberg and the Department of Education, which administers the program, declined interview requests on what they say is a legislative, not administrative, issue.

Rosenberg works for the Board of Governors, which oversees the universities. The board earlier this year briefly floated the idea of capping Bright Futures and adding a need-based element. The panel quickly dropped it after getting the same kind of opposition Ring later drew.

There has also been some talk of toughening the standards, but that’s gotten nowhere. either. To get a 100 percent grant, a high school graduate must have at least a 3.5 grade point average in 15 college prep courses, a 1270 on the SAT entrance exam or 28 on the ACT and 75 hours of community service.

The criteria for 75 percent funding is a 3.0 grade point and 970 on the SAT or 20 on the ACT, with no community service requirement. Both test scores are only slightly above statewide levels and below national averages.

The percentage of undergraduates who get Bright Futures grants is highest at the state’s most selective schools, where good grades and high test scores are a prerequisite for entry: 72 percent at the University of Florida, 64 percent at New College of Florida and 58 percent at Florida State. Historically black Florida A&M is at the opposite end: 12 percent of it students get grants. The figures are based on a 2006-07 breakdown, the latest done by university officials. 

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