In Florida, there are few programs as popular as the state’s Bright Futures Scholarships. The program gives full or partial college scholarships to anyone who meets the academic standards — a family’s income is not a factor — and is paid for with money from the Florida Lottery. So far, half-a-million students have studied with help from Bright Futures. What’s not to like?
The cost. The program’s popularity has made it a growing burden on the Florida Lottery’s pot of gold, and last year the Legislature had to kick in $100 million from other sources to fully fund the scholarships. Something, lawmakers are saying, has to change, and it looks like big changes could take place in the current legislative session.
Lawmakers will have to balance the need to reduce the cost of the Bright Futures against the program’s sheer popularity. Politically, a tough call.
The Florida Legislature established the Bright Futures Scholarships in 1997, supported by revenue from the Florida Lottery. Bright Futures was created, in part, in response to frustrated Floridians who saw how the Georgia Lottery supported that state’s Hope Scholarships and demanded something similar in the Sunshine State.
Bright Futures began as a large, expensive program — $70 million. But with the program’s costs covered by lottery ticket sales — perceived by many as “free money” — there was little complaint among lawmakers or the public. Parents, especially, were keen on the program, with its promise of free tuition.
Bright Futures’ problems, however, were in place right from the start. For a merit scholarship, it was hardly selective. In its original form, Bright Futures gave top students enough money to cover full tuition costs, and then some extra for books as well. That was consistent with the concept of keeping the best in brightest in Florida’s universities.
But the Legislature did not stop there. It also provided a smaller scholarship, covering 75 percent of tuition, for students who were good, but not great — essentially students with a B-average.
The Legislature also extended Bright Futures to any students enrolled in Florida — students at Florida’s 11 public universities, students at Florida’s 28 community colleges and even students at Florida’s private colleges, who get the equivalent of tuition at public institutions. There is also a Bright Futures award for students in vo-tech centers. In all, that’s a lot of students.
Of course, many thousands of students graduate high schools with a B average, and with the prospect of a Bright Futures Scholarship in mind, parents made sure they did. As a result, participation in Bright Futures exploded, as have the costs.
The generous nature of Bright Futures, coupled with tuition increases over years, has pushed the program’s budget of $437 million — six times bigger than when it started in 1997 and, in political terms, unsustainable.
What can be done to rein in costs? In recent years, the Legislature has made the program less generous. At the university level, the Legislature split tuition into two parts — base tuition, set by lawmakers, and differential tuition, set by the boards of trustees of the public universities themselves. This way, if the Legislature chose to freeze base tuition, it also limited some of the costs, while allowing tuition increases on the differential side where there is no Bright Futures exposure.
Lawmakers also have raised the standards to qualify for the scholarships, and those minimum SAT scores will continue to climb over the next few years.
That’s not enough. With lawmakers faced with budget cuts in the billions, fiddling with the dials on Bright Futures is seen as inadequate.
There are a number of options on the table. The Senate is considering cutting the size of each scholarship by $1,000. The House is looking at a big jump, 200 points or more, in the minimum SAT scores needed to qualify.
Whether any of these changes are put in place, or others that could emerge as the legislation session moves toward its final weeks, will come down to the classic political calculation of which is greater — the determination of lawmakers or the popularity of the program.
Contributing Editor Bill Edmonds is a consultant in communications in Tallahassee, Florida. A native of Virginia, he has worked in the Florida capital for three decades in journalism, in public affairs and in communications. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Virginia Commonwealth University and a master’s in American Studies from Florida State University.