Is Bright Futures going away?
In a recent presentation to trustees, University of Florida President Bernie Machen dropped a bombshell about the Bright Futures scholarship program.
"As Bright Futures goes away - and it looks like it is going to go away - and the individual assumes more of the cost, there may be more of an incentive to go through faster," he said.
Machen was making a point about possibly creating multiple tracks for UF students, such as a "Sun Pass" option to graduate faster, as students pay a greater share of their tuition costs.
But the idea that Bright Futures is going away is sure to raise concerns from current UF undergraduates, 68 percent of whom receive the scholarships.
The state already has cut the scholarships in recent years and increased requirements to obtain them.
State Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, said he didn't expect the program to go away in the next five years, but his answer was different if the question was asked about a longer period.
"If you're talking about 20 years, probably yes," said Oelrich, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. "It's just a program that we can't sustain."
Oelrich said the program might be phased out over the next decade or two, or possibly changed into a program based more on need.
Others have proposed providing higher scholarships to students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM fields, or providing them exclusively to those students.
Oelrich said Bright Futures was created in better economic times, and the state can no longer afford the program in its current form.
He noted that the scholarships are currently going to many UF students who can afford tuition, as the median income for families of freshmen in 2010 was about $100,000.
"I don't know if that was ever the intent of the program," he said.
When the merit-based program was created in 1997, keeping the best students in state was cited as a reason, and questions were raised even then about whether funds should instead be directed to needy students.
Funded by the Florida Lottery, the scholarships had covered 100 percent of tuition for students with the highest grades and test scores, and 75 percent for students with grades and scores in the next tier.
But the program's growth outstripped lottery revenues. Lawmakers in recent years ended the 100 and 75 percent awards in favor of a flat amount that pays for a declining share of tuition as tuition rates rise.
Minimum test scores to qualify for the scholarships have increased and are slated to rise even higher in the years ahead.
More changes could be afoot. Gov. Rick Scott has suggested that the state encourage students to enter STEM majors. A Board of Governors work group recently proposed giving higher Bright Futures funding to students in STEM majors. Others have suggested making the scholarships exclusively for those majors.
University of Florida chemistry professor Rick Yost, faculty representative on the board and a work group member, said he doubts that the idea is going anywhere in the Legislature.
While lawmakers are interested in encouraging students to enter STEM programs, Yost said that they have political considerations in dramatically altering the popular program.
"They're also interested in the public perception of the Bright Futures program," Yost said.
The Florida College Access Network released a report in April finding that 30 percent of Bright Futures recipients at state universities have family incomes higher than $100,000 a year, but nearly one-third have family incomes of less than $20,000.
The report suggested affluent students should bear the brunt of program cuts, protecting benefits for students in need.
"Bright Futures is inefficient and unsustainable in its current form," said Braulio Colón, executive director of the network.
The debate comes as tuition at UF and other universities is rising up to 15 percent annually until rates reach the national average.
In making the case that its tuition is a bargain, UF cited figures showing nearly two-thirds of undergraduates who graduated in 2010-11 did so without debt. The figures are based on government and some private loans dispersed through UF.
Still, UF students have protested tuition increases including a march to the recent trustees meeting. Robbey Hayes, a protest organizer and junior anthropology major who himself receives Bright Futures help, said cuts to the scholarship will likely be an increasing part of protests.
"If it just completely disappeared, I think there are a lot of students that are going to go into panic mode," he said.
UF freshman biology major Mitul Patel literally wears his appreciation for the program on his sleeve - he was wearing a tie-dyed "Bright Futures" T-shirt on campus last week. He said the program influenced his decision to attend UF and he hopes it remains as a merit-based scholarship for years to come.
"Hopefully I'll get out of here before it's gone, (but) I still want it around for everyone else," he said.