Before university cuts, change Bright Futures
Source: Palm Beach Post
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Gov. Crist announced last week that he wants to cut 3.6 percent overall from the state budget, but 6.2 percent from the university system's budget. This would happen even as the state devotes nearly $400 million to Bright Futures scholarships, many of which go to average and above-average students and to families that don't need them.
When legislators created Bright Futures in 1997, they supposedly wanted to keep top students in the state. Yet the program has become the closest thing to socialized higher education in Florida. Florida Academic Scholars receive 100 percent of tuition and fees at a public university if they earn a 3.5 high-school grade point average, score at least 1270 on the SAT and perform 75 hours of community service. Yet for just a 3.0 GPA, a 970 SAT score and no community service, the Florida Medallion Scholars Award pays 75 percent at a university or 100 percent at a community college.
The weaker standard amounted to the difference between the $85,435,986 in Academic Scholar grants for students at the four-year public universities during the 2005-2006 academic year, the latest data available, compared to the $152,467,231 in Medallion grants to B students. At the two-year community colleges, the disparity was even greater: $2,845,005 in awards to the top scholars, and $24,748,646 to the Medallion students.
Meanwhile, the university system's financing is down $3,000 per full-time-equivalent student since the late 1980s. Fast-forward, and somewhere between death by a thousand cuts and the Legislature's historical underfinancing of the system is Gov. Crist's proposed cut of more than $600 per student.
Yet this year, Gov. Crist vetoed a 5 percent tuition increase that would have cost students $55 per semester while providing more teachers and classes to help them graduate. Since Florida is investing nearly $1 billion on high-tech research institutions such as Scripps, the failure to invest in the educational foundation to make that money pay off makes no sense.
To put that 970 Medallion SAT qualifying score in perspective, the nationwide average SAT score for 2007 was 1017. The state average was 993. In 2003, Florida Atlantic University's average score was 1020, and new President Frank Brogan said it needed to be raised.
Bright Futures money is too easy to get, with no connection to need. The percentage-based formula, rather than a lump-sum award, keeps tuition artificially low because legislators know that there's only so much lottery money. But Bright Futures isn't written in stone. It's just legislation. And it's past time to rewrite that legislation.