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Bright Futures Downsize Wins Senate Approval

Major changes to a popular scholarship program that pays for the majority of Florida's students to attend college easily won approval in the Florida Senate Wednesday.

The Senate, by a 34-4 vote, approved changes that include upping the qualifying standards for the scholarship and permanently taking it away from students who can’t keep up their grades.

The reason for tweaking the program, which previously funded 75 percent to 100 percent of tuition for Florida students, is to keep the scholarship afloat. Since its 1997 inception, the scholarship has ballooned in popularity costing $75 million for the first year and $435 million in 2008-2009. To sustain it would cost about $480 million.

Instead, the Senate went with a $376.37 million for 2010-2011.

“We have been struggling every year to keep Bright Futures funded,” said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, the chair of the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Committee.

Under the Senate proposal, students in a first tier of awards would receive $126 per credit hour, while students in the second tier would receive $95 per credit hour. That's the same amount students received this year because last year, lawmakers realized they could not fund tuition at 100 percent or 75 percent for every qualifying student and set a flat rate for the awards.

But the program needs to have even narrower parameters to survive, Lynn said. The Bright Futures budget is currently being funded by federal stimulus money and will be next year as well, but if the program expands and there is no more stimulus money, Lynn said she doesn't know where to get the money.

The Senate bill includes raising the SAT requirements from 1270 to 1290 for the top award and 970 to 1050 for the secondary award. It also changes the stakes for students who don't keep up their grades.Currently, students in the first tier must maintain a 3.0 grade point average, while the second tier students must maintain a 2.75 GPA. If they fail to do that and lose the scholarship, they can eventually apply for reinstatement. However, if SB 1344 is approved, students would not be able to apply for reinstatement.

A change was added to the bill though to allow exceptions such as illness, an emergency or military service to qualify students for scholarship reinstatement.

Lawmakers generally favored the change out of economic necessity, but some also noted that there was a need to make the scholarship need-based rather than merit-based because the highest achieving students would likely qualify for other scholarships. Poor students would have more need for the money, some argued.

Throughout the state university system, about half of the students are on the scholarship. At the University of Florida, about 93 percent of freshmen have a Bright Futures Scholarship while about 76 percent of the overall undergraduate population has one. The legislation does not affect students who are currently on the scholarship.

“It is too easy to get Bright Futures,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate. “It is not a merit based scholarship, it is a scholarship for everybody at this point.”

Part of the bill does require all Bright Futures recipients to fill out the federal student financial aid form (FAFSA) so that the Legislature can start examining the financial means of students who receive the state-funded scholarships.

The bill was opposed by four Democrats, Sens. Dan Gelber, Charlie Justice, Al Lawson and Chris Smith.

Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said he understood the intentions of the legislation but that he could not support some of the provisions such as permanently taking away a scholarship.

“Now is not the time to close the doors of our higher education institutions to anybody,” he said.

The House has not included a similar provision in its budget, but has cut the flat rate for students receiving the awards to $110 per credit hour for the first tier and $83 per credit hour for the second tier. The differences will likely be resolved in conference committees over the next few weeks.

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