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Bright futures dimmed

Several thousand USF students were told last week that a portion of their Bright Futures scholarships would be cut.

USF Financial Aid sent 2,000 USF students who receive the Florida Academic Scholars Award – the Bright Futures scholarship that covers 100 percent of tuition and fees and awards a stipend for books – an e-mail Thursday stating that the stipend, called an Educational Allowance, would be decreased nearly 30 percent, from $300 a semester to $225. The move underscores questions about the long-term financial viability of the program.

The decrease, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2008, reflects a legislative decision, according to the e-mail, which described the stipend as “legislatively reduced”.

Rep. Ed Homan, R, who represents the USF area and other parts of the north central section of Hillsborough County in the Florida House of Representatives, said he didn’t know of the reduction, but wasn’t supportive of it.

“The promise was made to students and it’s not a good sign to renege on a promise,” he said.

Homan said the cut reflected problems now coming to a head in the Bright Futures program: more people are applying and qualifying for some form of state scholarships, but the lottery money that funds them has remained flat.

Homan wasn’t surprised the funding didn’t cover all the scholarships now awarded, but didn’t know the shortfall would be felt by students this spring.

“This is the first chink that says, ‘You know, we have to change something,'” he said.

The cuts are said to be “legislatively enacted” because the Legislature put them into effect, Homan said, but the changes were governed by existing funding formulas that dictate how lawmakers must divvy up the funds.

At other times, the legislature has covered shortfalls in lottery funds for Bright Futures, but the current budget climate no longer allowed it, Homan said.

Sen. Victor Crist, who represents the district in which USF is located in the Florida Senate, did not return messages seeking comment.

Steve Runion, assistant director of Financial Aid, said the Legislature notified Financial Aid of the decrease with a memo Nov. 6.

The memo cited the multi-billion dollar budget shortfall in Florida, largely the result of lagging property tax receipts that came about with the bust of the real-estate boom, as the cause of the cut to the book stipend.

The language of the memo viewed the cut as low-impact compared to other possible cuts, Runion said.

“From the Legislative point of view, they viewed it as the best they could do,” he said, nevertheless maintaining that Financial Aid was against the reduction.

“Any cut in financial aid, we would view that as detrimental to students.”

Runion also said that Financial Aid did not know about the specifics of the decrease before Nov. 6, but that it had suspected decreases in funding for some time in keeping state-wide budget trimming.

“We had been told in the last Legislative session that cuts were required. We didn’t know this would happen until we got the memo, but we knew cuts were coming.”

Despite the decrease, the Florida Academic Scholars Award, as well as the Florida Medallion Scholars and Gold Seal Vocational Scholars awards, will keep pace with the 5 percent tuition increase slated for the spring.

The Academic Allowance will also be pro-rated for the spring, meaning the award amount will vary depending on the hours in which a student is enrolled.

A student taking 12 or more credit hours will receive the full $225, whereas a student taking between nine and 11 hours will receive $169. A student taking six to eight hours is awarded $113.

Fewer than half of students attending one of USF’s campuses, 13,000 of a total of 34,477 undergraduates, receive some form of the Bright Futures scholarship.

Student reaction to the cuts was mixed.

Patrick Blackburn, a sophomore majoring in biomedical sciences, was surprised to hear of the cuts, but was not necessarily angry.

“It’s kind of weird that something like that would happen,” he said.

“(But) I don’t have that big of a problem with it per se.”

Justin Smith, a senior majoring in theater, said he wasn’t directly affected by this round of cuts, but sympathizes with students he knows the cuts will hurt, particularly those with expensive textbooks.

Although Smith said his books are inexpensive, he formerly studied engineering and used to use the whole $300 to cover pricey science textbooks.

“I can imagine that some people do need that and will continue to need that in the future,” Smith said of the stipend. “Having that reduced really will screw some people.”