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Editorial: Bright Futures dulled by legislators’ actions

When the Florida Legislature introduced the Bright Futures scholarship program in 1997,  it did not anticipate how popular the program would be, or what that popularity would mean for the initiative’s financial viability.

Legislators wanted to keep students from leaving Florida for college, assuming that they would stay in the state after graduation and help the economy.

They also wanted to reward talented students with an education to which they otherwise may not have had access.

However, the program has gone from awarding 42,319 scholarships in 1997 to 169,895 in 2007.

And the amount of money going toward the lottery-funded program has remained relatively flat.

Rather than being an economic boon for the state, the program has become a financial burden for State University System (SUS) administrators that threatens educational quality.

With the SUS reeling from state-level budget cuts, there have been calls to make up for budget shortfalls by increasing tuition, but this would also mean increasing the amount that students receive for scholarships.

It’s a necessary move, but it’s also a move that Bright Futures can’t afford.

And to avoid politically unpopular tuition increases, legislators are forcing universities to use other means to raise money, such as boosting fees.

This has proved particularly hard on scholarship recipients.

Consider that for the 2007- 2008 academic year, the largest Bright Futures scholarship lowered its educational allowance — which covers fees, books and other expenses — from $300 per semester to $225.

For the 2008-2009 academic year, the allowance was dropped to $375 for the entire year.

Additionally, Bright Futures administrators have announced that for the 2009-2010 academic year, the program will no longer cover technology fees, which continue to increase.

This is unfair to students who earned the required grades, standardized test scores and community service hours for a scholarship program under the premise that the program would live up to its end of the bargain.

Instead of cutting the allowance, legislators should tackle Bright Futures’ problem where it starts. More people are getting scholarships from a shrinking pool of money, so it would make sense to raise standards, striking a balance between the amount of available funds and number of applicants.

Raising the standards of Bright Futures will not only prevent the program from collapsing financially, it will also help the program stick to its original commitment: helping the brightest and best  Florida students get through college.