Upcoming changes to Florida's Bright Futures program will result in only half as many total scholarship recipients -- and poor and minority students across the state will suffer tremendously.
Those are the findings of a new analysis performed by a University of South Florida administrator who predicts that the changes will have dramatic consequences.
Florida lawmakers in 2011 hiked the SAT/ACT test score requirement for Bright Futures as part of a strategy to reduce the costs by reducing the number of scholarships.
As the effective date of those changes approaches, the USF report examines the potential impact.
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"I was shocked by the whole picture," said USF administrator J. Robert Spatig.
Since its launch in 1997, Bright Futures' focus has been encouraging student achievement, making college more affordable for the middle class, and persuading Florida's most promising students to stay in state.
The program is popular with parents, but there have been persistent questions regarding race and class.
The scholarships are funded by state lottery games, which are more likely to be played by Floridians who are poor, uneducated, or minority.
Yet the recipients of the awards -- even under current rules -- are more likely to be college-educated, upper-income white households.
A University of North Florida professor who studied this phenomenon described it as "a reverse Robin Hood effect."
The new requirements will be phased in over the next
two school years. Ultimately, thousands fewer students will be eligible for Bright Futures at the same time that the higher education price tag is slipping out of reach for some families. College tuition in Florida has more than doubled in the past decade, and student loan debts continue to grow.
Spatig, USF's assistant vice president of admissions, recruitment and enrollment planning, compared current student data from all state universities with the newer, tougher Bright Futures requirements.
Though the minimum high school GPA of 3.0 will stay the same, starting this fall, the minimum student ACT score will increase from 21 to 22. In 2014, the minimum ACT score will jump to 26. Minimum SAT scores will increase at a similar rate -- from 980 now to 1020 this fall to 1170 in 2014.
What are the consequences? Here's what Spatig found:
The total number of college freshmen receiving Bright Futures at state universities would drop from 30,954 to 15,711 -- a decrease of about 50 percent.
Minority students would drop even more, with Hispanic recipients decreasing by more than 60 percent, and black scholarship recipients plummeting by more than 75 percent.
Of all large Florida counties, Miami-Dade would take the biggest hit from the changes, with scholarship recipients dropping by almost 64 percent. Broward's scholarships would drop by about 55 percent.
Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University would suffer more than schools such as the University of Florida and Florida State University. At UF and FSU, a solid majority of students would still qualify for Bright Futures, but at the local universities, less than 25 percent of incoming freshmen would receive the scholarship.
When it came to students' family income, Spatig's analysis was limited to USF, rather than statewide. But the demographics of USF are similar to the state university system as a whole, and the trend lines were clear:
Only 40 percent of poor students who now qualify for Bright Futures would receive the scholarship under the new standards.
Among middle-class students (who are too rich to receive federal Pell Grants but still struggle to pay for college), roughly 50 percent would qualify for the new Bright Futures.
Affluent students fared the best, with 60 percent of wealthy students continuing to qualify.
"Certainly disturbing, to say the least," said state Rep. Perry Thurston Jr., a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. Thurston serves on the House Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee, where a bill has been filed to prevent the higher test score requirements from taking effect in 2014.
A similar bill has been filed in the Senate. Neither has gained any traction in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Research has shown that financial aid to needy students can significantly boost college participation and graduation rates, but aid to affluent students doesn't have the same impact -- those students were largely going to attend and graduate anyway.
In academic circles, there are wide-ranging opinions as to why certain types of students don't perform as well on college admission tests -- but most acknowledge that there are performance gaps. The College Board has spoken about the uneven results of its SAT, though it insists the test itself is fair, and argued that inequality in America's K-12 school system was to blame.
Others say the SAT and ACT use culturally biased questions, or suggest that the environment some students live in -- such as being the first in their family to go to college, or speaking a language other than English at home -- is a disadvantage on standardized tests. The ability of a student's family to afford expensive test-prep courses may be another factor.
More than 800 colleges now no longer require the SAT or ACT for admission -- at least in part to preserve access for minorities and the economically disadvantaged.
Meanwhile, the cost of Bright Futures has kept getting bigger, with the growth in scholarship payouts far outpacing the growth of lottery revenues. To combat this budget drain, state lawmakers reduced the dollar value of the scholarship awards and raised minimum qualifications.
Those who achieve the basic-level Bright Futures scholarship currently receive $75 a credit hour at a four-year institution, while students who have earned the more-difficult Florida Academic Scholars award get $100 a credit hour.
Lawmakers have avoided adding needs-based criteria.
Braulio Colón, executive director for the Florida College Access Network, said it's time for income to become a factor.
Colón said it wouldn't necessarily mean shutting out wealthy families -- every Bright Futures student could get a base award of $1,000 or $1,200, he says. But additional dollars could be given to students who have a demonstrated financial need, including those who are shut out from federal Pell Grant dollars.
"I'm talking about kids who don't qualify for Pell, I'm talking about kids who are sort of middle of the road," Colón said. "We've got to get smarter with how we invest our state resources."
Spatig would like to see students' high school GPA given more weight as a way of raising requirements.
A sliding scale could be created, he said, where students with an outstanding GPA still qualify for Bright Futures, even if they are slightly below the minimum test score.
Such a solution would benefit Hialeah High School junior Brian Gomez. Gomez has a weighted GPA of 4.6, but his ACT score of 23 (which would have been sufficient before) won't be high enough to qualify for Bright Futures under the planned changes.
Gomez, the son of a single mom who would be the first in his family to attend college, said he deserves to be judged on more than just a single test.
Long term, he said, Florida may be worse off for turning students like him away.
"It could cost the state, having to spend more money on maybe unemployment benefits or welfare benefits," Gomez said. "Because a whole generation of students would not be able to get a college degree."