Gabriela Fowler has a 4.7 GPA, takes college-level calculus and statistics courses, and is the president of her school’s business leadership club. But for the 17-year-old Hialeah High senior, a college scholarship funded by the record-setting revenues of the Florida Lottery somehow remains out of reach.
Like many low-income and minority students in Miami-Dade County, Fowler has been shut out by tougher eligibility requirements for Bright Futures college scholarships. A few years ago, her SAT and ACT scores would have been high enough to earn money that, along with federal financial aid, would have covered most of her college costs. Instead, Fowler is now scrambling to find a way to pay for college.
She’s far from alone.
Since the Florida Legislature started instituting tougher standards tied to higher test scores beginning in 2011, Miami-Dade schools with large populations of low-income and African-American and Hispanic students have seen a drastic decrease in the number of students who qualify for what has long been billed as the Lottery’s primary payout for education.
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We have the GPA, we have the grades, we have the other requirements, everything is there except the test scores.
Gabriela Fowler, senior at Hialeah High
At Hialeah High, where many students come from immigrant families and speak Spanish at home, almost a fifth of the graduating class qualified for the scholarship funding in 2011. By 2015, the most recent year for which statewide data is available, that number dropped to 8 percent. At Homestead High, which has similar demographics, 25 students were eligible for the scholarships in 2011. Four years later, only three students qualified. And at Miami Jackson High, where almost all of the students are low-income, just 2 percent of the graduating class qualified in 2015.
“We have the GPA, we have the grades, we have the other requirements, everything is there except the test scores,” Fowler said.
When lawmakers changed the scholarship standards, they said the goal was to control spiraling costs in the wake of Florida’s foreclosure crisis and plummeting government revenue. Now, the economy is again humming, revenue has rebounded and the Florida Lottery has seen record-breaking sales for five years in a row, earning more than $6 billion last year.
But the Bright Futures program last year dropped to the lowest level of funding since 2003. Money paid out for scholarships has been cut nearly in half over seven years and the number of incoming freshmen awarded last year was almost as low as when the program was created in 1997. And, along with hiking the standards, lawmakers have cut the size of the awards.
Critics had long predicted the impact of raising the SAT and ACT bar. Research shows that poor and minority students tend to score lower on college admissions exams — in large part because their families often can’t afford SAT and ACT prep courses and multiple test retakes that help more affluent teens get higher scores.
The growing disparity has caught the attention of some lawmakers in Tallahassee, who are contemplating a variety of changes to the scholarship program.
The Florida Senate recently voted to bring funding for the top Bright Futures scholarship back up to 100 percent of tuition and allow students to use the awards to cover summer courses. Both measures still need to be approved by the House.
“People would graduate faster and that’s a big push we’re seeing in the Legislature right now is making sure we can get our students out on time,” said Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, who has filed a bill in the House to cover summer courses.
The most important thing to me is to make sure we can cover their summer, but if we can get more students into Bright Futures I think that would be an outstanding thing to do.
Gov. Rick Scott
The expansion of Bright Futures over the summer is something Gov. Rick Scott also supports. But critics argue the proposed changes would mainly benefit the predominately white and wealthy students who already qualify for the scholarships, rather than assisting a more diverse group.
“If we have a limited amount of funds to use for financial aid, is giving students with high test scores more money going to increase the number of students going to college? Unlikely,” said Troy Miller, the associate director for research and policy at the Florida College Access Network, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, would like to see the standards for Bright Futures restored to previous levels, when more than a third of Florida students qualified — “before the Legislature decimated the program.”
62 The percentage of African-American freshmen who would have received Bright Futures but no longer qualified after the higher standards were implemented.
“This is personal for me,” said Smith, who sponsored a bill to reinstate the previous standards. “I wouldn’t be serving in the Florida House of Representatives if I hadn’t gotten a Bright Futures scholarship.”
At a January press conference in Fort Lauderdale, Gov. Scott did not rule out changing the standards to make more students eligible.
“The most important thing to me is to make sure we can cover their summer, but if we can get more students into Bright Futures I think that would be an outstanding thing to do,” Scott told the Herald.
Bright Futures cuts
Alina Grandal, a college adviser at Hialeah High, remembers a time when students could cover all of their college costs with Bright Futures scholarships and federal financial aid.
“They could afford to go to a state university no problem,” she said.
Over the past 20 years, the scholarship program has contributed more than $5 billion to some 750,000 students, according to the Florida Lottery. The value of the top two scholarships ranges from $2,300 to $3,100 a year. A portion of every lottery ticket purchased in the state — about 28 percent — goes into a trust fund earmarked for education. The law establishing the trust fund gives lawmakers authority to determine how to spend the money, but states that Bright Futures must be funded first, with left over revenue distributed to K-12 schools and state colleges and universities.
At its height in 2010, Bright Futures doled out more than $420 million in scholarships to almost 180,000 students. Faced with the financial crisis, a rapidly expanding program and worries that it had become too easy for students to get the scholarships, lawmakers in 2010 and 2011 voted to hike the test scores needed to qualify and cut the value of the scholarships.
The changes were implemented over several years, with the toughest requirements going into effect in 2014. The minimum SAT score for the middle of the three Bright Futures scholarships rose from 970 to 1170 and the top award now requires a score of 1290. By the 2015-2016 school year, the number of students getting the scholarships dropped to just under 111,000. The price tag also plummeted by nearly half to $226 million.
“Low-income and minority students were disproportionately impacted,” said Smith, citing data showing that 47 percent of Hispanic freshmen and 62 percent of African-American freshmen who would have received the scholarships no longer qualified after the higher standards were implemented.
Bright Futures, said Smith, “has essentially been slashed in half.”
The policy that changed the eligibility criteria is counter to our own efforts to graduate more children from groups that historically have not.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho
As a result, the scholarship fund went from using more than a quarter of the lottery education money to just 12 percent, freeing up more funds for schools, colleges and universities. The number of students enrolled in Florida’s public schools has grown over the past few years, but it is unclear whether some of the extra lottery money, which is supposed to be an added bonus for education, has also been used in lieu of tax funds to cover the state’s education needs.
The Florida Department of Education declined to comment on this issue, saying legislators determine how to spend the extra money. Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who oversees the Senate’s higher education budget committee, did not respond to an interview request. Neither did Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, who has been a vocal supporter of the tougher standards.
Drastic impact in Miami-Dade
In Miami-Dade, the cuts have been felt most acutely at low-income schools where the students are mainly African-American and Hispanic.
“We are gravely concerned over the disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities in Miami-Dade, where we’ve seen exponential increases in graduations,” said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “The policy that changed the eligibility criteria is counter to our own efforts to graduate more children from groups that historically have not.”
The school district has tried to level the playing field by providing college advisers and SAT and ACT test prep and encouraging students to apply for fee waivers that allow them to retake the college entrance exams for free. But the impact has still been significant enough to attract the attention of federal civil rights investigators, who revived an old investigation into the scholarship program in 2013. The investigators ultimately concluded that the program did not violate anti-discrimination laws.
At Hialeah High, college adviser Alina Grandal’s office is decorated with college flags. On the back wall, over a row of computers used to fill out college applications, an enormous poster reminds students to apply to universities, financial aid, and Bright Futures.
But for many students, the coveted Lottery scholarships aren’t attainable.
“Our school is 95 percent Hispanic and many of the students come from a household where only Spanish is spoken so the scores are a big deal for them,” Grandal said. “They’re excellent students that get straight A’s and they work very hard, but when it comes to those standardized tests, it’s hard.”
Fowler, a senior, has taken the SAT and ACT twice, but she hasn’t made the cut for Bright Futures. She scored a 21 on her ACT, which would have qualified her under the old criteria, but is now five points shy of the cut-off. Fowler wants to be a vet and plans to go to graduate school, so she’s afraid of going into too much debt as an undergraduate. Instead, she has been spending the little free time she has between Advanced Placement courses and extracurriculars frantically applying for scholarships.
“I tend to work on scholarships and college stuff more than my homework,” she said. “I have trouble finding the time to sleep because I do all of my homework and it’s around 1 a.m. already and I’m still not done. It’s a lot.”
Our school has top-notch students that I say could compete with anyone across the country and I certainly don’t think a test score would define who they are or how much they can accomplish.
Maria Farno, counselor at Hialeah High
Her classmate Lorena Hernandez, 18, also spends a lot of her time applying for scholarships, although she wasn’t sure exactly how many applications she had filled out. “I’d have to check the list that I did,” she said. “It’s an Excel sheet. It literally just keeps going and going.”
Hernandez is one of a small group of students at the school who qualified for the top Bright Futures scholarship. Her friends Claudia Cruz and Claudia Santoyo qualified for a less lucrative Bright Futures scholarship after taking the ACT and SAT twice. If they decide to take the tests a third time to try for the top scholarship, they would need to come up with almost $120 to register since fee waivers only cover one retake. That’s a pricey gamble.
Many students at Hialeah High face a similar dilemma, the students said. They are struggling to save up for college and have to be careful about any extra expenses. This year, Hialeah High canceled its annual senior picnic because too few students could afford to pay for tickets to the event, the students said.
Grandal and Maria Farno, a counselor at the school who also helps students apply for college, say the Bright Futures formula doesn’t put enough value on overall student achievement. “Our school has top-notch students that I say could compete with anyone across the country, and I certainly don’t think a test score would define who they are or how much they can accomplish,” Farno said.
Others would like to see lawmakers consider a student’s financial need in deciding who gets the scholarships.
“We are essentially giving money to students who are very well prepared for college in most cases and are already likely to go,” said Miller of the Florida College Access Network. “Because of the higher test scores needed to receive Bright Futures, students who meet those thresholds, research tells us, come from families already likely to be able to afford college.”
Lenore Rodicio, the executive vice president and provost for Miami Dade College, where a large portion of the student body is low-income, agrees.
“I think the challenge with Bright Futures is that it doesn’t take into account the students who need us the most, the low-income students, the students who haven’t had the benefit of the best schools, whose parents don’t know the system and what needs to be done to get those high scores on the test.”