‘Futures’ not so bright

Long lauded for preventing students from seeking a college education outside of the Sunshine State, the Bright Futures Scholarship Program has ballooned over the past decade, paying most — or all — of most in-state students’ tuition.

Despite its popularity among lawmakers, families and university officials alike, state legislators have hungrily turned to the lottery-funded program as a way to trim the fat from its already lean budget.

And it’s long overdue.

Bright Futures provided 42,319 scholarships for just under $70 million when the program launched in 1997. Eleven years later, the number of students benefiting from the program has quadrupled — with 75 percent to 100 percent of 69,895 students’ tuition paid for by lottery dollars.

Meanwhile, the program’s cost has increased more than sevenfold, at a price tag of more than $436.1 million, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Because of sharply declining state revenues, the Legislature’s auditing agency reviewed ways to cut the program’s costs — most notably by increasing the eligibility requirements, which is something the program should’ve done a decade ago.

In fact, Florida Atlantic University President Frank Brogan told the Naples Daily News that when he helped create Bright Futures in the mid-1990s as the commissioner of education, the program’s requirements were supposed to increase incrementally each year as a way to keep costs under control.

If the SAT requirement for the Florida Academic Scholar award, which pays for 100 percent of qualifying students’ tuition, was increased from 1270 to 1290, the state would save about $2.7 million in its first year alone.

For years, however, legislators have resisted making dramatic alterations to the program, because it made higher education more affordable for a large swath of the state’s college-aged population.

As it stands, 92 percent of USF’s freshman class receives a Bright Futures scholarship, according to the USF Foundation’s 2008 performance report. Statewide, the Florida Department of Education reports that about 87 percent of in-state students attending a public university qualified for one of its scholarships.

While it’s commendable that lawmakers have fought to make a college education more affordable for the most students possible, they must also remember that the program was created to retain the state’s best and brightest.

Bright Futures covers 75 percent of tuition for in-state students with an SAT score of 970 — almost 50 points below the national average of 1017, and below the state average of 993, according to College Board’s 2007 SAT results.

Though Bright Futures could still be spared from any significant changes after the legislative session begins March 3, it’s time lawmakers consider ways to contain the bloated program.