Bright Futures should be based on need

The debate has been waged since the Bright Futures Scholarship Program started in 1997: Is the distribution of Bright Futures Scholarships fair?

In the face of a sour economy and reduced state revenue, state legislatures have come to a critical juncture regarding the future of Bright Futures. As it stands, the budget for the scholarship cannot be sustained for the number of students taking advantage of the opportunity.

In 1997 only 42,000 received Bright Futures versus more than 159,000 in 2008, according to the St. Petersburg Times. Because of this, Florida lawmakers have capped the scholarship amount at the current tuition level. This means it will not adjust to the rise in tuition, which is expected to increase by 8 percent at community colleges up to 15 percent at state universities.

Serious questions about other potential changes to the scholarship have been raised. The focus of these changes, however, cannot be to simply raise the academic standards — the award must be overhauled to consider a student’s financial needs.

University of North Florida economics professors Mary Borg and Harriet A. Stranahan described Bright Futures as “reverse Robin Hood” in a 2000 study. Most of the funding for Bright Futures comes from the sale of lottery tickets. The researchers found that low-income minority populations spent more of their income on the lottery but were the least likely to receive Bright Futures.

Former chancellor of Florida’s university system, Charlie Reed told the Times that Bright Futures is “one of the dumbest public policies I know — to give rich people financial aid to go to the state schools and to ignore the neediest students.”

The requirements for Bright Futures are not based on financial need but academic achievement. Students must score a 970 on the SAT to earn the Medallion Scholars Award, which pays 75 percent of tuition at universities and 100 percent at community colleges, and a score of 1270 will earn the 100 percent Academic Scholars Award.

This raises serious concerns because academic success is often affected by family income. UCLA’s national survey of entering undergraduates at four-year colleges and universities states found that today’s undergraduate families have a median income 60 percent higher than the national average.

If Bright Futures money goes to college students regardless of need, then most of the money is going to students from this higher income bracket. Those in this higher bracket are already able to afford college, though they may have to curb extra spending to do so. Those with serious financial needs who cannot score high enough for Bright Futures may have a much more challenging struggle. Most must focus on simple things like keeping the lights on, paying rent, and having just enough money left over to buy that fancy new clicker for class. College may simply end up being unaffordable for them.

Some first generation college students have no financial support outside of the financial aid office, yet they carry the weight of their families’ hopes and dreams with them. Their parents often feel that if they can just get their children through college, those children will not have to struggle and take on such immense debt as themselves.

If students can raise their family name up the social ladder, they will become one less burden on already underfunded social programs such as Medicaid, cash assistance, Food Stamps and WIC for the working poor. There would also be less of a chance that future members of their family will end up incarcerated or victims of other poverty-driven social ills.

The necessary changes to Bright Futures must include a change in availability of the scholarship based on financial needs. Raising the academic standards higher would only further discourage diversity in the classroom.

Cuts are coming to Bright Futures, but they shouldn’t take the money away from those who actually need it. There needs to be an ease on this class protectionism otherwise this will be another example of the exclusiveness of the “American Dream.”

Justin Rivera is a senior majoring in history.