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State puts stricter guidelines on Bright Futures Program

Legislation that increased tuition also restructed the Bright Futures Scholarship Program’s funding and student eligibility requirements.

Beginning July 1, changes  made by the Higher Education Appropriations Conforming Bill (Senate Bill 1696), which was passed June 2, will affect Bright Future recipients who enroll in college for the first time in the 2009-10 school year.

The scholarship has three award levels: Florida Academic Scholar (FAS), Academic Top Scholar (ATS) and the Florida Medallion Scholars (FMS).

Bright Futures will pay students a flat rate of $126 per credit hour for FAS and ATS recipients at four-year schools and $78 per credit hour at community colleges.  ATS recipients will receive an additional $54 per credit hour.

The program will pay FMS recipients $95 per credit hour at four-year schools and $59 at community colleges.

USF’s tuition and fees in the upcoming school year will be $150.10 per credit hour, said Billie Jo Hamilton, director of Financial Aid.

Only ATS recipients will receive enough to cover this amount.

Hamilton said Bright Futures is implementing a new process for refunding state money for classes dropped or withdrawn by Bright Futures recipients after the drop/add deadline.

This change makes students responsible for paying the full amount for any dropped or withdrawn classes during the school year, said Hamilton.

“Students are looking for more scholarships and money to cover the differences of the Bright Futures cutbacks,” said Vivian Fiallo, college and career counselor at Freedom High School in Tampa.

Fiallo said students are becoming more active in finding scholarships. She said she does not think the cutbacks will lower the number of students staying in Florida for college.

Hamilton said students may qualify for an exemption from paying back money if their class withdrawl was because of verifiable illness or injury. However, she said exceptions will be rare.

The changes will require the institution to refund all non-exempted monies back to Bright Futures within 30 days of the end of the semester, Hamilton said.

She said that in order to renew the Bright Futures Scholarship students cannot owe money for withdrawn or dropped classes. If a student does not repay the institution, an “accounts receivable hold” will be placed on the student’s account.

Such a hold could cancel the student’s upcoming semester registration, refuse registration for any future semester until fees have been paid, hold transcripts and grades and withhold a student’s diploma, among other things.

Last year, about $2.6 million was spent on classes that students withdrew from or dropped, Hamilton said.

She said students might not drop classes as much if they money will be coming out of their pockets.

Another change to the program is that full-time students must earn 24 credit hours in a school year and part-time students must earn a prorated amount based on their enrollment.

Hamilton said a grade of a D or better is considered passing under the Bright Futures requirements.

Bright Futures is also terminating the “college-related expense” payments for students, which paid for student lab and book fees.

Hamilton said even with the reductions in Bright Futures, Florida has a generous
scholarship program and the second cheapest state tuition in the country.

According to USF Office of Financial Aid, 15,407 USF students received $41.9 million in Bright Futures for the 2008-09 school year.

“I would not be able to go to school if I didn’t have Bright Futures,” said Nicole Bird, a junior double majoring in English literature and theatre arts who receives 100 percent Bright Futures. 

She also said student’s grade point averages will likely suffer, because students may have to get a job to make up for what Bright Futures used to cover.

“My little brother is starting college next year and will be affected by these changes to Bright Futures,” said Tim Bender, a junior majoring in microbiology who receives 100 percent Bright Futures. “He learned two weeks after graduating high school that he wasn’t receiving as much money for college and now he feels cheated.”

Bender said Bright Futures was “a big incentive” for him to attend college in Florida.

Institutions are required to notify Bright Future recipients of the new requirements and changes made to the Bright Future Scholarship Program during the registration
process.

Hamilton said USF is already taking measures to inform prospective students and their parents of the changes by making announcements at student orientations and calling students.