Florida universities need $45 million to offset drop in Bright Futures scholarships

Florida Gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Crist, speaks to the Miami Herald editorial board Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014.
Florida Gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Crist, speaks to the Miami Herald editorial board Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

When Florida lawmakers made it harder to earn a Bright Futures scholarship, they celebrated the potential cost savings.

But the changes to the eligibility criteria might actually come with an unforeseen price tag.

Universities across the state, including Florida International and Florida Atlantic, say they will need an additional $45 million next year for financial aid to help “low-income students impacted by the loss of Bright Futures scholarships.”

A disproportionate share of those students are black or Hispanic, according to a new analysis. At FIU and FAU, more than 60 percent of freshmen who would have qualified in previous years did not meet last year’s eligibility requirements.

The Board of Governors, which sets higher education policy for the state, was scheduled to hear a presentation on the issue Wednesday. But the controversial item was pulled from the agenda at the last minute after it got dragged into this year’s governor’s race.

The board’s 17 members are gubernatorial appointees. Republican Gov. Rick Scott has pledged to improve access to higher education as he campaigns for re-election. Democratic challenger Charlie Crist blames Scott for cuts in the program.

Bright Futures scholarships are available to Florida high school graduates who attend public and private universities within the state. The merit-based awards are funded by Florida Lottery revenues.

Prior to 2011-12, students who scored 970 or higher on their SATs could receive a scholarship. Now, students must earn a score of at least 1170.

The new criteria was approved in 2010 and 2011 to scale back the costly program. They were phased in over time.

The effect on last year’s freshman class was significant, according to the analysis by university leaders. Statewide, more than one third of students who would have received a scholarship under the 2012 criteria did not meet the criteria in 2013.

The drop was even more dramatic for minority students. Nearly half of Hispanic freshmen and two-thirds of black freshmen who would have qualified in past years did not receive an award last year, according to the analysis.

The authors of the analysis said they expect “more dramatic results” as the final criteria changes are phased in.

They said the additional $45 million in need-based financial aid would help ensure low-income students complete their degrees.

“Without these funds, retention and graduation rates are likely to fall as students come to grips with the financial implications of continuing their schooling,” they added.

The issue was on the agenda for Wednesday’s Board of Governors meeting in Pensacola. But board member Norman Tripp said he and his colleagues needed more time to prepare.

“A number of questions have arisen that will require thoughtful analysis and additional information, which is going to take some time to gather,” Tripp said.

At least two members tried to air their concerns on Bright Futures before the meeting adjourned.

The scholarship program has long been controversial, with critics raising questions about discrimination. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently revived an investigation into the awards.

State Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, said lawmakers had “exacerbated the problems” by putting the new eligibility standards in place. “We’re dealing with the consequences of those decisions,” he said.

But State Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who oversees education spending for the Florida House, questioned whether the universities really needed $45 million.

“The number is flawed,” he said. “It assumes that everyone who would have qualified for Bright Futures under the old standards comes from a low-income family. That’s not the case.”

Fresen said lawmakers should discuss the possibility of spending more on need-based financial aid. He does not, however, support dropping the standards for Bright Futures. “It’s supposed to be for the best and the brightest,” he said.

The contentious issue resonated this week on the campaign trail.

“Rick Scott has put up barriers to college, making it harder for more than one of every three students trying to get an education,” Crist said in a statement. “This disproportionally hurts minorities but it also hurts our entire economy.”

The Scott campaign said Crist had raised college tuition during his time as governor.

“As Floridians were losing their jobs and their homes, Charlie Crist did even more damage by raising taxes and tuition on middle class families and leaving schools in worse shape,” Scott spokesman Greg Blair said. “Rick Scott has righted these wrongs, and Charlie Crist deserves an F in both math and history.”

College tution rose 15 percent in 2009 and 2010 during Crist’s first term as governor, but Scott also raised tuition by 15 percent one year as governor, according to PolitiFact Florida.

Herald/Times Staff Writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory

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