Florida State University. Source: Wikimedia Commons
For Florida families, planning for college begins long before a senior in high school submits his or her first application, and students and parents depend on a scholarship called Bright Futures to help finance the cost of college.
That scholarship program is based on academic success during high school — the better the academic achievement, the more Bright Futures scholarship money for tuition and fees.
But there’s been a twist this legislative session, proposing that students wouldn’t necessarily be eligible for the scholarship based on high achievement. Instead, they’d need to focus on job-related employability majors in college, rather than pursuit-of-knowledge majors in the liberal arts field, to access the Bright Futures scholarships.
It’s possible, then, that a very bright student might not get a Bright Futures scholarship.
That caused an uproar from students, families, professors and other higher education advocates, who testified in droves in front of Florida lawmakers.
The bill sponsor, Republican State Sen. Dennis Baxley, ended up removing that controversial aspect related to college majors in the legislation.
But now, even the amended version of the legislation poses risks to the Bright Futures scholarship program, leaving many families uncertain about paying for college in the future. In fact, the fate of Bright Futures funding may be on the line every new fiscal year, and subject to the whims and priorities of every new legislative body.
How the bill started
Baxley, a Republican who represents Sumter County and parts of Lake and Marion counties, sponsored Senate Bill 86, intending to promote employable majors and job security following college.
Bright Futures is an avenue to college for many Florida high school students. There are two award levels, one that requires a 3.0 weighted GPA, and one that requires a weighted 3.5 GPA. The two levels also require specific ACT or SAT college entrance exam scores and at least 75 hours of volunteer service.
“This is a merits-based program. These kids work their butts off to get this,” said Sen. Gary Farmer last Thursday in defense of the program. Farmer is a Democrat who serves as the Senate minority leader and represents part of Broward County.
Currently, Bright Futures is funded by the Florida Lottery, and students who qualify for Bright Futures receive either 75 percent or 100 percent of their tuition and fees covered, depending on the award level.
After all the hoopla the Baxley bill does not tie into specific majors to get a Bright Futures scholarship.
Instead, it would instruct the State Board of Education, which oversees the state’s community college system, and the Board of Governors that oversees Florida’s university system, to create a dashboard that highlights the employment opportunity of each field of study.
The amended bill still needs to work its way through the Florida House, and it’s not clear how well the bill will be received in the House or by the governor if is ultimately approved, according to the Miami Herald.
Regardless of whether the bill is successful or not, lawmakers plan to fully fund Bright Futures for the 2021-22 budget.
Still concerns on the amended bill
Even if eligibility for Bright Futures is no longer tied to specific majors, concerns are still being raised about how the bill may leave Bright Futures vulnerable for future cuts to the scholarship program.
Right now, students who qualify for Bright Futures are awarded 75 percent or 100 percent of their tuition and fees covered through Florida statute. But the Baxley bill would remove those explicit percentages and instead leave funding dependent on each fiscal year — meaning that it would be at risk for cuts every fiscal year when the Legislature gathers to discuss the budget.
And for students who are trying to plan their college career, not knowing if that money will be there for them, could send them to out-of-state colleges that may offer a better financial plan for them.
Robert Cassanello, a history professor at the University of Central Florida and president of the United Faculty of Florida at UCF, said that this kind of measure was “really on par for the Florida state Legislature.”
He added: “They’re telling students ‘Hey, we can’t tell you now, but at some point if we feel there’s a budget necessity, we’re going to take money out of your Bright Futures and put it someplace else — and you’re just going to take whatever percentage we tell you.'”
Andrew Spar, president of the statewide teacher union, the Florida Education Association, said that he’s also concerned about tying Bright Futures as a budget issue instead of a policy issue that would need to face scrutiny from several legislative committees.
“Policy issues are handled differently — there has to be bills,” he said in a conversation with the Phoenix.” In Budgetary issues… it’s very hard to parse out ‘I don’t want that to happen in the budget,’ because you have to vote for the whole thing or nothing.
“Parents are concerned, going forward, it could be easier to create these kind of changes that were proposed this year without, really, any debate,” he said.
There’s another aspect to the current bill that could makes some lawmakers, students and parents uneasy. That’s a dashboard outlining the financial situations of graduates in each field, noting median levels of student loan debt, median pay over 1, 5, and 10 years, and debt-to-income ratios.
The bill would have the State Board of Education collect this data and make it available for students to inform them of the job prospects in their major.
Sen. Jason Brodeur, a Republican who represents Seminole County and part of Volusia County and is a supporter of the bill, argued in the Senate last week that the dashboard would have been helpful for him as a college student who was indecisive about their major.
“I have been reminded of how many times I changed my major when I was an undergrad,” said Brodeur at the Thursday Senate session. “And if I had a dashboard that would have actually helped me, it might have helped a little bit of that anxiety that I felt at that time.”
In contrast, Sen. Tina Polsky, a Democrat who represents part of Broward and Palm Beach counties, expressed that her constituents — parents and students — have been wary about how the dashboard information would be used.
“I really hope the (college) major listing doesn’t come back to bite us,” she said.
Karen Morian, president of the United Faculty of Florida, said that she is concerned that the dashboard could be used to revisit similar legislation, such as the unpopular original version of the bill.
“I think it’s a data-mining thing so that they can come back in a year or two and say ‘See, these are not profitable. We’re just going to close these (majors) to Bright Futures,'” Morian told the Phoenix. “If that is what the plan is then that will be damaging.”
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