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Chance of Bright(er) Futures

ORACLE PHOTO/SEBASTIAN CONTENTO

Taking the summer off to work or travel is a current trend among many USF students, but that may be changing soon.

Students currently qualifying for Bright Futures Scholarships will be able to advance their degree more quickly if Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to extend scholarship eligibility into the summer semester is accepted.

Though the proposal doesn’t plan to appropriate additional scholarship funds to students, it does allow students more flexibility in the way they choose to expend the 120 semester hours accounted for by Bright Futures.

USF’s director of financial aid, Billie Jo Hamilton, said the inclusion of summer hours would accelerate learning and offer students more flexibility in graduating early. 

Enacting the proposal would partially alleviate students with Bright Futures of the costly summer semester requirement. General student requirements mandated by the state and Bright Futures requirements meet at a perilous crossroad when discussing the summer term.

“The state of Florida mandates that all students are required to take summer classes,” Hamilton said. “If we make that a requirement, students should be able to use their Bright Futures during the summer.”

The academic bar has been sharply raised for students hoping to attain Bright Futures. Maintaining the scholarship is equally difficult.  

With recent shifts in the last two years for ACT/SAT requirements, Hamilton estimates that 40 percent of students eligible in the 2012-13 school year would no longer remain eligible under the stricter qualifications imposed on today’s students.

Currently, 17,659 undergraduate students take summer courses at USF’s Tampa campus. Approximately 68 percent of those students request financial aid for the summer, with roughly half that number receiving some form of financial aid. 

Hamilton said the pros clearly outweigh the cons for both the student population and the university.

“It’s good for students to graduate quickly because school is expensive,” Hamilton said. “Every additional semester costs students $10,000 on average.”

However, he also said the expansion would require more faculty over summer, as well as more housing and dining costs on campus to accommodate the additional students.

For new students arriving at USF with AP and Dual Enrollment credits, as well as Bright Futures eligibility, graduating in three years — and saving an estimated $20,000 or more — would be an effective springboard for entering the workforce early and with minimal debt. 

USF will have to jump on board with the new summer eligibility by studying student behavior patterns in the coming summer semester and adapting with speed and ease to necessary changes in the amount of classes being offered to students, as well as choosing classes that can facilitate a broad spectrum of students’ needs.

“Certainly, with students registering in March, we would perhaps have to be more nimble in adding courses based on demand,” Hamilton said. “If we see 2,000 more students in the summer than we have had historically, we would have to expand course options, which is a financial commitment.”

According to Hamilton, as long as USF offers high-demand classes that will help students advance their degrees, the added tuition revenue would be sufficient to support the necessities of a more populous summer term. 

Freshman Rachel Hardbarger, who has yet to take classes in the summer, said her motivation for doing so would be the statewide requirement for students to complete nine hours of summer credits before graduation. 

The environmental science major expects to graduate in 2018, but said she is interested in accelerating her graduation if given the opportunity.

Hardbarger receives Bright Futures funding at the medallion level, which offers students $77 per credit hour up to 120 hours.  If Bright Futures expanded to include the summer semester, she admitted she would be more likely to return to USF during the summer.

Hosting more students in the summer, especially freshmen who have yet to face the challenges of scholarship renewal, would cause a ripple effect across campus. Expanded dorm, dining and faculty access would be necessary to accommodate the increased volume of summer-term students.

That is, unless USF expanded their catalogue of online classes in the summer term, effectively allowing students to return home for the summer while earning credits at a discounted rate. 

Tess Puhak, a sophomore majoring in computer engineering, said her experience with the summer term was overwhelmingly positive.

“I liked taking summer classes,” Puhak said. “I enjoyed how empty the school felt. I took Great Performances on Film, which was perfect for the longer classes offered during summer.”

Puhak, who is also a medallion-level recipient of the Bright Futures Scholarship, said she would be interested in taking classes in the summer again, but would prefer to use that time for traveling abroad or acquiring an internship.

Though Scott’s proposal would invest $23.5 million to expand Bright Futures, critics argue that is throwing more money at a program that isn’t helping the students that need it the most.

Some lawmakers, such as state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, argue the scholarship should lower its standards to help more students and that it should also cover even more of the costs of college. 

“I haven’t heard any constituents complaining about not having access to summer school,” Rodriguez said to The Tampa Bay Times. “What I have been hearing is that students at Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University who would have been eligible for Bright Futures scholarships (under the old standards) are no longer eligible.”

Whether there will be any changes to Bright Futures won’t be known until March at the earliest, when Florida’s Legislature meets to vote on Scott’s 2015-16 budget.