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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Revising Bright Futures

A University of South Florida study that found toughening standards for Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship program would have a devastating impact on minority students underscores the need to revamp this popular program. Bright Futures uses state lottery funds to provide higher education scholarships to Florida students and has been controversial since it was adopted by the Legislature in 1997. Lawmakers decided to award the scholarships to state universities and community colleges strictly on merit. All students who met the academic requirements were eligible for Bright Futures, regardless of their income. But it cast too broad a net, with standards that required little more than a B average to qualify. No one worried when the state was flush with money, but when the economy tanked lawmakers realized they had created a costly entitlement that was draining dollars from other education needs.
Lawmakers a couple of years ago moved to toughen the standards, but as the Tribune’s Jerome Stockfisch reported recently, a USF study found the increased test-score requirements would reduce African-American freshmen who qualify for Bright Scholars by more than 75 percent compared to last fall. It would cut the number of eligible Hispanic freshmen by 60 percent. The survey found the standards would cut the roughly 30,000 freshmen who now qualify for Bright Scholars by half. Tougher standards were in order, but the impacts on minority students are alarming. A Democratic lawmaker has proposed legislation that would use standardized test scores and a student’s grade point average throughout high school. This seems a reasonable approach, as long as the student took challenging classes. Four years of grades probably more accurately reflect a student’s work ethic and abilities than a standardized test. The state does need to toughen the standards for the scholarships, but it should do so in a way that is fair and does not unduly punish hard-working students who may not excel at standardized tests. An even more important step would be to give more emphasis to need in awarding the scholarship. Former Florida Chancellor Charlie Reed, who retired last year after 14 years as chancellor of the California university system, has long derided the merit-only criteria. He says it is “morally wrong” that the state would spend limited tax dollars to give scholarships to wealthy students who have ready access to higher education, unlike students from poor families. The other day he told a group in Tallahassee, “The big beneficiaries of Bright Futures are the car dealers, because if you go around these campuses, you see the exotic cars parked all around.” That may be a slight exaggeration. According to Florida Department of Education figures last year, about 31 percent of the scholarship recipients were from families with income of $100,000 or more. About 40 percent of the recipients reported family incomes of $50,000 or less. We wouldn’t go as far as Reed and make the entire Bright Futures program needs-based. There is value in Florida offering the incentive to its very best students. But the bulk of the money should be reserved for high-performing students in financial need.
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