Across Florida, college freshmen are signing up for classes.
Many are bringing Bright Futures scholarships to help pay their way.
But Forrest Estep experienced sticker shock when he saw what the scholarships don’t cover. Estep is a student at Florida State University.
In the past, his Bright Futures Scholarship would have covered a lot more. But now?
“Here’s how much you owe for the fees,” he said, explaining the bill for his first semester. “It gave you a total. From that total I guess is where they took the percentage from, and it was barely any. It was like not even half.”
The Florida State bill was a lot more than Forrest Estep’s dad, Woody Estep, was expecting to pay.
“I think that was part of what was confusing me,” said Woody Estep, “because I thought it was going to be, ‘OK, here’s your total, you get a 75% discount off your total purchase.’ No, it was 75 percent off one item.”
Students earn money for college through the Bright Futures program based on their grades, test scores, and community service.
The program is not based on financial need.
More than a third of Florida’s high school graduates qualified for the scholarship last year.
It used to be that scholarship recipients got either 75 percent or 100 percent of their tuition paid. Some other expenses were also covered.
Florida lawmakers started changing the Bright Futures program a few years ago.
The cost of college keeps going up. Lottery revenue helps fund the program, and lottery sales declined for three years before setting a record this year.
There’s less money to spend, and more students are eligible for scholarships.
The problem, according to Braulio Colón with the Florida College Access Network, is that the program is entirely merit-based. (Full disclosure: The network is an underwriter of StateImpact Florida.)
“Regardless of a student’s family’s ability to pay, all students qualified for it if they met the academic criteria,” Colón said. “That made the program unsustainable (because) so many students were qualifying for the award.”
Also, he said many families don’t understand that paying for college involves more than just tuition.
“So, if they hear something about a scholarship that pays for 75 percent of their tuition, many times first generation students and families interpret that as, ‘Oh, I’m covered because tuition is all I need to worry about,’” said Colón.
Fees can double the cost of the final bill.
There was a time when Bright Futures covered all of tuition plus up to about $300 in fees.
Starting this year, recipients will only receive a certain amount of money per credit hour, and most of their fees won’t be covered.
It’s a much smaller award than students received during the first decade of the program.
Colón said the money would go farther if the state also considered an applicant’s financial need.
“We’ve always thought that there are some definite benefits to having a very popular merit-based program in the state of Florida,” said Colón. “However, a merit-based program is incomplete if it doesn’t take into account a student’s ability to pay.”
But Bob Sanchez of the James Madison Institute, a nonpartisan research group, said the state shouldn’t abandon the merit-based system.
“Remember, one of the rationales for creating the Bright Futures program in the first place was to avoid the brain drain,” said Sanchez, “where the smart kids go off to Ivy League schools or to the University of Virginia or some other school.”
“It was to help keep them in Florida on the theory that when they graduate from college they’ll stay and work here in the professions they’ve chosen,” said Sanchez.
Instead of making Bright Futures need-based or cutting the scholarship even more, Sanchez said lawmakers should raise the bar for applicants.
A report by the James Madison Institute suggests the money could go farther and have a greater impact by giving bigger scholarships to fewer scholars.
“I think when money was so plentiful, you could welcome more students into it,” said Sanchez. “But as the money has grown tighter and the number of students has grown, you have to be more selective.”