Florida Helping Too Many Teenagers Pay for College?

State legislature is considering a change in Bright Futures scholarship program, after critics blast it as excessive.

You'd think State Rep. Luis Rojas would be a big supporter of the Bright Futures program.

After all, this new project, which uses lottery revenue to pay good students' college tuition, is picking up the $2,000 tab for his daughter's first year at Florida State University.

But instead of backing the program, Mr. Rojas is one of a growing chorus of critics who say the scholarship is so generous it amounts to a free tuition for most kids entering college - including those who can afford to pay.

Modeled after Georgia's highly praised Hope scholarship, Bright Futures is at the leading edge of the national experiment in how best to use money generated by a state lottery. Indeed, Bright Futures and the Hope scholarships are the only such programs in the United States and have attracted attention from New Mexico to Kentucky. But with mounting opposition to the Florida project shows how difficult it can be for states to tie lottery money to a favorite cause, be it education or economic development.

One year after it was hastily passed by the Florida Legislature, critics are saying the scholarships are threatening to eat up money desperately needed for a massive construction program to ease Florida schools' overcrowding. "It's giving away scholarships," explains Rojas's colleague Rep. Bill Sublette (R) of Orlando, chair of the House Education Appropriation Committee. "We don't think the state can afford it."

Last year, Bright Futures provided $71 million for 41,000 grants to the state's universities and community colleges. In fact, two-thirds of the University of Florida's freshman class - roughly 13,000 students - received the scholarships.

Under the scholarship's rules, students who earn at least a 3.0 grade-point average and score at least 970 on their SATs get 75 percent of their tuition and fees covered - usually about $2,000. Meanwhile, those who maintain a 3.5 grade-point average and score 1,275 or higher on their SATs receive a full award.

Who needs it?

Traditionally, states have offered scholarships based on need. So Florida's type of blanket policy - covering everyone above a certain level of academic achievement - is controversial. Some experts say policies like the ones adopted in Florida can cause problems. "It creates a confusion as to who's really benefiting," says Jamie Merisotis, director of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington.

There's no confusion for Miami businessman Charles Cobb Jr. He says there is a direct correlation between high family income and high education achievements. "The better off you are, the better your chance of winning one of these scholarship," says Mr. Cobb, chairman of the Florida Business/Higher Education Partnership, an education reform group made up of top corporate and education leaders.

Among the most vocal critics of the scholarship program, the group notes that the biggest lottery players are people of modest means. "So we have engineered a popular wealth transfer from low and mid-income people to the well-to-do," Cobb says in his group's recent report.

Too many scholarships

So why has Florida's program run into a rough start while Georgia's has been trouble-free? Observers point out that Georgia divides all lottery funds among three education programs: college scholarships, pre-kindergarten, and technology for the classroom. In Florida, some money from the lottery not used for scholarships still goes to unspecified areas.

In addition, when Georgia created Hope, it didn't have merit-based scholarships. Florida, on the other hand, already had some of the nation's biggest merit programs. In fact, when two of its merit scholarship programs were lumped together with Bright Futures and its lower grade requirements last spring, the number of qualifying students almost doubled.

Despite the first-year problems, though, Bright Futures remains a very popular program among Florida citizens. Born at a time when Floridians were deeply dissatisfied with their lottery, it has been an attempt to hold lawmakers to a promise made ten years ago.

When they created the lottery in 1988, Florida legislators said every ticket sale would go to a good cause: education.

After years of giving lottery money to other programs such as Medicaid, state representatives finally reformed the lottery financing rules last year, spurred on by a large public outcry.

"Bright Futures has restored people's confidence in the use of lottery dollars," says a senior official with Florida's Department of Education.

For that reason, many officials here think it will be hard to substantially reform Bright Futures - especially in an election year. Still several proposals are already on the table. One would establish income limits for Bright Futures applicants to ensure it doesn't become a public subsidy for rich kids. Another idea is to raise the minimum SAT scores from 970 to 1,110. The national average is currently 1,016.

For some Bright Futures opponents, though, just having the debate has been a blessing. "The good news is that what we're discussing is more investment in higher education," says Ms. Merisotis of the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

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