Florida's popular scholarship program needs to be retooled.
As students head to college this fall, the Bright Futures Scholarship Program — a large and popular state financial-aid initiative — is struggling to preserve its solvency and is unable to help tens of thousands of budding scholars who would have qualified for in-state tuition support in previous years.
The state legislature’s method for reducing these student grants, meanwhile, is raising issues of fairness and effectiveness.
Bright Futures, founded in 1997, traditionally awarded scholarships to a broad cross section of incoming undergraduates. For example, in 2008 a high-school student could cop a grant with, among other things, unremarkable standardized test scores of 970 on the SAT or a 20 on the ACT. A 3.0, or B, grade point average was good enough.
The 2008 SAT threshold was 12 percentage points lower than the average combined score of Florida high-school students last year.
With an expansive definition of “merit,” one out of every three Florida high-school graduates received an initial Bright Futures award in 2008. Better yet, the Florida Lottery picked up the tab, shelling out almost a half-billion dollars that year without the need for any state tax increase.
Hooray! What’s not to like? Florida designed the scholarship program to encourage satisfactory academic performance and, in theory, to help direct high-skilled college graduates into the state’s workforce. The program was doing just what it was intended to do.
But then reality hit. Lottery revenues were maturing and couldn’t continue to absorb skyrocketing scholarship outlays. So Florida slashed the value of the scholarships and increased the standards required to qualify by mandating higher test scores.
This year, state economists project just 12 percent of high-school graduates will receive an initial award, which can range from $2,300 to $3,100 a year for a full-time student. They also estimate the number of scholarships will continue to steeply decline through 2017.
Government leaders say that Bright Futures must live within its means. That sounds fair to me. But how these leaders cut grants has been less so.
That’s because the Florida legislature has limited awards by repeatedly hiking the SAT test score requirement, which is now 1170. That’s 188 points above the most recent SAT average. They’ve also hiked the ACT threshold, to an equally aggressive 26. Meanwhile, they’ve left the 3.0 GPA minimum untouched.
Yes, there’s a back-story here. The problem is significant standardized testing achievement gaps between white and Asian-American students on one hand, and Hispanic and African-American students on the other. There’s a similar gap between well-off (or high socioeconomic status) students and low-SES students.
Consequently, Hispanic students could see a 60 percent drop in scholarships, while the number of black recipients could drop by 75 percent, according to a recent University of South Florida analysis.
That’s a problem, because minority and poor students — those who are least likely to be awarded Bright Futures scholarships — are the populations who’ve traditionally been under-represented in higher education, and typically can least afford tuition. Meanwhile, well-off students, who can better afford standardized test prep courses and coaches, are overrepresented.
So, let’s regroup here. This is a merit scholarship program, isn’t it? Equal results were never promised. However, Bright Futures does promise to identify high-school talent effectively.
Raising the GPA requirement, for example, may make better sense in defining merit. That’s because many college administrators and standardized test industry executives admit that it’s high-school performance measured by grades, not sstandardized test score, that’s the best predictor of college success.
Higher grades, greater success in college, a better measure of talent deserving a merit scholarship. That makes sense to me.
Some experts have suggested a sliding scale so exceptional grades would allow a student with below-par standardized test scores to secure a scholarship.
Better yet, Florida, like many other states with merit scholarship programs, could ignore standardized test scores altogether and rely only on grades. To compensate for differing grading standards from school to school, Bright Futures might switch from an absolute GPA minimum for high-school seniors, now 3.0, to a proportionate grade point — say, the top 10 percent of each school’s senior class — to decide who qualifies for a grant.
Such a change could ensure that the state’s best and brightest high schoolers enjoy a tuition break if they choose to attend a Florida school after graduation.
Jim DeSimone is a principal at Orlando-based Knob Hill Companies and is a founding partner of Winter Park Magazine. He was previously vice-president of corporate affairs for Darden Restaurants, director of com-
munication for the City of Orlando and a reporter and communications counsel for the Orlando Sentinel. He has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Florida, a masters degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Maryland College Park and a J.D. from the College of William and Mary.