Florida college students pay price for changes to Bright Futures

Aug 11, 2009

Miami Herald–August 11, 2009


The popular Bright Futures scholarship program is now worth less and carries more financial penalties than ever before, prompting significant concerns among Florida university officials about the impact to students — particularly those from lower-income families.

The biggest change, starting this fall and affecting all Bright Futures recipients, will require students to pay back the state for any courses dropped after the drop/add period in the first few days of each semester. For a three-credit course, the bill would be about $375.

On top of that, Bright Futures is now a flat award that doesn’t cover the full cost of tuition, which is rising by as much as 15 percent this year for in-state students. And to keep the scholarship from one year to the next, the new policy requires full-time students to complete 24 credits each academic year, up from 12 credits.

“I work in the registrar’s office and I didn’t even know about the change,” said Florida State University student Taylor Hase, 21, of Fort Myers.

The Bright Futures recipient juggles full-time work with a full-time class schedule and worries about the new penalty for dropped classes. “It has good intentions, but it will hurt people. And it will hurt most the people who are putting themselves through college.”

College administrators across Florida are so concerned about the potential “discriminatory effect” of the changes, they have launched unprecedented outreach campaigns via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, campus advertisements and local newspapers. The message to students: Pick your courses carefully — or it could cost you.

“I don’t want to create a system that only lets rich people drop classes,” said FSU admissions director John Barnhill. “So we’re doing all we can to get the word out. I’ve been here 30 years, and we’ve never done anything like this.”

In South Florida, several public and state colleges and universities queried said they have no massive effort under way to alert students on changes in the regulations governing Bright Futures scholarships.

Lawmakers approved the changes to Bright Futures in the spring as they sought to trim hundreds of millions from the state budget.

“Bright Futures is a great opportunity for students who meet the criteria, but at the same time there has to be accountability,” said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “We expect students who sign up for a class to stick with it. Nobody gets a free lunch.”

Bright Futures has ballooned in popularity — and cost — since the Legislature established it in 1997. It cost the state $75 million the first year; this year’s price tag is more than $400 million.

The Lottery-funded program covers 75 or 100 percent of a Florida high school graduate’s undergraduate tuition, as long as the student meets certain SAT and grade-point-average standards and attends a state school.

Bright Futures has long been criticized for providing scholarships regardless of financial need and for setting low academic standards. More than 95 percent of incoming University of Florida freshmen are on Bright Futures, and most of the freshmen at FSU and the University of South Florida get the scholarship.

New university chancellor Frank Brogan said he would like to see lawmakers gradually increase the SAT requirement for Bright Futures. “You can set a course of gradually raising the scores, maybe get it closer to the national average,” he said.

So far lawmakers have avoided tweaking the SAT standards, a politically risky move given how many families have come to depend on the scholarship. But by making the award flat, the state this year will save about $34 million. The new requirement that dropped courses be reimbursed is worth another $30 million, a Senate analysis shows.

College officials say they don’t condone students abusing the scholarship by frequently dropping classes at state expense. Still, they worry the broad changes will hurt lower-income, first-generation college students the most.

“It may have negative unintended consequences beyond the good it does,” said Florida International University president Mark Rosenberg, former chancellor of the universities.

Barnhill said some students drop difficult classes like calculus or chemistry because their course load gets too heavy and they worry a low grade will bring down their GPA.

Others, especially first-generation students, may initially struggle with the academic rigors of college. Now, those students may have to choose between swallowing the low grade or the nearly $400 bill, Barnhill said.

And if they can’t pay the bill, they won’t be able to register for classes the following semester, under the policies at state universities.

“This is going to put a lot more pressure on students to be prudent about what classes they take so that they don’t face a financial penalty,” said UF junior Rafael Yaniz, 20, of Miami. “I would hate for students to stay in a course that is going to harm their economic future because of a few hundred dollars.”

FSU student body president Rob Jakubik has been working with administrators to make students aware of the changes.

Jakubik, 21, already has sent e-mails to more than 400 student groups. Fliers and posters are going up in dining areas and residence halls, and messages are going out to parents and faculty.

Similar efforts are under way at USF and UF, where computerized course registration systems will include alerts about the ramifications of dropping a course or not getting enough credits.

“To me, the changes seem pretty harsh,” said USF financial aid director Billie Jo Hamilton. “And it is going to affect our needier students disproportionately.”

Miami Herald staff writer Luisa Yanez contributed to this report.