Not so Bright Futures

Getting lost amid more high-profile state problems are the current cutbacks in college scholarships known as Bright Futures. Those cuts threaten the graduation rate of Florida students, mainly minority students and specifically those from South Florida.

In the past, Bright Futures served as the great equalizer for the poor, but smart. With a Bright Futures scholarship, these students, too, could go to college and educate their way out of poverty.

But that opportunity is slowly disappearing for too many.

Bright Futures scholarships paid the tuition of one in three Florida college students. Today, that number is one in eight. What a shame.

In 1997, Bright Futures’ first year, Florida’s Lottery funded $75 million in the scholarships. By 2008, that amount jumped to $435 million. But since the program’s inception, an outsized share of more than $4 billion in scholarships has gone to students from affluent non-minority families, at least some which could afford college without any financial help.

When the scholarships became too costly, the state cut funding and reduced the number of awards. In 2010, lawmakers raised the minimum SAT/ACT test scores to levels critics say further exclude poor and minority students.

Nearly two-thirds of black students and half of Hispanic students who met the criteria for the scholarships back in 2012, failed to qualify for a Bright Futures scholarship in 2013.

On top of that new reality, this year the Florida Department of Education budget called for $271 million in Bright Futures funds, reflecting cuts of $38 million and 18,000 scholarships from last year.

Of all large counties, Miami-Dade takes the biggest hit from the new criteria. At Florida International University, more than 60 percent of freshmen students didn’t meet the revised requirements last year.

Unfortunately, for now, minority students who have been stung by the new requirements have limited support from local lawmakers. The Legislature’s Hispanic Legislative Caucus, dominated by Republicans from Miami-Dade, has generally supported the revisions impacting underprivileged students. Whoever has the highest GPA and SAT scores should receive the scholarships, they say. Period.

“I’m absolutely in favor of increasing financial aid to students who need it to make up the affordability gap and increased need-based aid,” State Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, told the Editorial Board. “But financial aid and academic scholarships cannot and should not be muddled. Bright Futures was always intended, from its inception, to be an academic scholarship reserved for the highest performers. Academic scholarships and financial aid are two different conversations.”

Not all students get off the same starting block in life. Traditionally, low-income students do not score exceptionally high on the SAT, nor can their parents afford to send them to prep courses for such tests. In March, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights revived an investigation into the practices of the Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships.

The Board of Governors, which oversees all Florida universities, will deal with the issue at its Nov. 5 meeting. Yes, a day after the governor’s race is decided.

Let’s hope between now and then, candidates declare rescuing the spirit of Bright Futures a campaign promise.