Fewer than two out of every 10 Florida high school graduates qualify for a Bright Futures scholarship that helps pay their tuition and fees at state universities and colleges.
New data, being reviewed by the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, shows that the number may be improving, with an initial projection suggesting it could rise from 13.8 percent of graduates in the most recent school year to 17.5 percent in the 2016-17 academic year.
At the same time, while more high students may qualify for Bright Futures, data from the state Department of Education shows fewer students are renewing their scholarships once they are in a college or university. It is particularly true for Bright Futures “medallion scholars,” with 73,636 renewing their scholarships in 2014-15 but dropping to a projected 46,756 this year.
The renewal decline is a primary reason the total number of Bright Futures scholarships is projected to fall 20 percent, with 128,545 scholarships in 2014-15 dropping to about 102,000 this year. The fall is even more dramatic when compared to the program’s historic peak of about 179,000 students.
All those numbers are important because a revamp of the Bright Futures program is a major element in incoming Senate President Joe Negron’s initiative to improve Florida’s higher-education system.
After touring Florida’s 12 universities in the spring, Negron, a Stuart Republican, learned that the presence or absence of financial support was tied to a student’s ability to graduate on time. Students told him and other senators that they often had to work, which meant taking fewer classes and delaying their graduation.
Negron wants to restore the top-level Bright Futures award for “academic scholars” so that it covers the full tuition and fees, along with a $300 stipend for books. The scholarship now covers only about half the average $198 per credit hour cost.
The new data show more than 40,000 academic scholars are receiving Bright Futures scholarships, with that number to remain fairly constant in the next few years and with most of those students renewing their scholarships once in school.
But with many students not qualifying for Bright Futures, Negron also wants to increase need-based financial aid, including the Florida Student Assistance Grant program, which now helps about 134,000 students at a cost of $149 million a year.
Negron also supports increasing the $3,000 Florida Resident Access Grant, which helps more than 37,000 students attend qualified private schools in the state, like the University of Miami or Nova Southeastern.