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The Florida Legislature is poised to cut the popular Bright Futures scholarship program, meaning thousands of college students and their parents will be paying higher costs and less affluent families may have to take out loans, seek other financial aid, get jobs or maybe even go on a low-cost diet.
Cuts to the merit-based scholarship program would come as the Legislature is also raising tuition at public colleges and universities.
The only question is how much will the Legislature cut?
A House-passed budget would cut Bright Futures by 15 percent -- anywhere from $330 to $480 annually depending on the type of award. The Senate version would slash everyone by $960.
"I would just have to get really resourceful on eating really cheap food," said Florida State University junior Charlie Hittinger, 20, a social work major from Tallahassee. "Like, pizza rolls every night or something."
Hittinger has a warehouse job at his father's business and is on the state's prepaid tuition plan so --other than a possible overdose of junk food -- he won't be effected as much as Latitia Davies, 22, a junior biology major at Florida State from Sunrise.
"I'd have to take out loans or get a job, which would take away time I could use to study," Davies said. She's already taken out $8,000 in loans and said she doesn't want to get deeper into debt.
How to cut Bright Futures is one of many issues House and Senate negotiators are expected to wrangle over in the coming days as they begin trying to resolve budgetary differences. Both chambers have proposed spending cuts in nearly every part of the budget to avoid a potential $3.75 billion revenue shortfall.
The Bright Futures scholarship program, funded by Lottery proceeds, was launched in 1997 to stem a "brain drain" of top Florida students to out-of-state colleges. Students could qualify for grants paying 100 percent or 75 percent of tuition and fees at in-state public and private schools depending largely on how well they scored on entrance exams.
Due to prior cutbacks the average scholarship now covers just 52 percent of tuition and fees, according to state financial aid records. That's down from 73 percent in 2006-07.
The number of recipients has increased from 42,319 in 1997-98 to more than 180,000 last year. The cost also has exploded, peaking at $429 million in 2008-09. At the highly selective University of Florida, 98 percent of incoming freshman had Bright Futures scholarships last fall.
Lottery proceeds have not kept pace with that growth, so the Legislature two years ago capped the scholarships at 2008-09 levels although tuition has increased since then.
Lawmakers last year also agreed to phase in higher minimum requirements for Bright Futures through 2013-14 and cut all awards by $1 per credit hour, or $30 a year.
The House budget bill this year also would accelerate implementation of the new requirements, which would reduce the number of incoming freshmen receiving scholarships this fall.
Rep. Marlene O'Toole, a Lady Lake Republican who chairs the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, defended that approach by pointing out that Bright Futures was designed for "the best and the brightest."
"I think our levels have been too low," O'Toole said, but she added, "We may have to make some compromises."
Her Senate counterpart, Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said lawmakers ought to stick to the timetable that high school students have been working toward.
"To suddenly say, `Oh, now we're changing it again' just wouldn't be fair," Lynn said.
Other financial assistance would help offset the Bright Futures reductions, said University of Florida spokesman Steve Orlando.
"In many cases, the effects on students won't be terribly dramatic," Orlando said. "We're not going to let a financial problem stand between any student and going to school here."
He also noted that the average family income at the Gainesville school is relatively high at $110,000.
One long-standing criticism of Bright Futures is that many recipients don't need the scholarships because their families can afford the state colleges' tuition rates, which are among the lowest in the nation. The minimum tuition and fees set by the state is almost $3,100 a year for a full-time student taking five standard classes, but many universities charge more. UF charges $5,010.
Bright Futures has been derided as the "BMW scholarship" because well-to-do students can use the money it saves them to buy cars and other luxuries.
The Florida College Access Network, a Tampa-based group that advocates for first-generation, limited-income and underrepresented students including minorities, is pushing for the addition of a need-based component.
Merit-based criteria shouldn't be replaced but adding a need factor "targets the program more to what the K-12 population profile is," said Braulio Colon, the organization's director. About half of the students in Florida's public schools are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
O'Toole said lawmakers first need income data for Bright Futures families. She wants scholarship applications to include that information to "answer the question once and for all, is it going to the rich and famous, or is it going to the need based?"
Colon's group has compiled its own income figures by matching Bright Futures academic records with data from federal income tax returns. They show 32 percent of Bright futures recipients have family incomes of $20,000 or less. That compares to 39 percent between $20,000 and $80,000 and 38 percent above $80,000.
Adding a need-based factor hasn't gotten much traction in the Legislature so far.
"The kids earned it," said Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville. "There are programs that deal with need. This program is to get young people to excel, and I'd never change it."
The House budget bill also would raise tuition 5 percent for all students in state and community colleges and public universities. The Senate wants an 8 percent increase for the 28 state and community colleges but would not raise tuition at the 11 universities.
With approval from the Board of Governors, universities can boost tuition up to 15 percent including whatever base-rate increase lawmakers agree upon. A 15 percent increase would amount to about $465 in the next academic year.
Bright Futures recipient Alicia Kissinger, 21, a junior psychology major from Jacksonville, said one reason she transferred to Florida State from private Flagler College was because its tuition had gotten too expensive.
"Now moving up here it seems like they're going to make tuition even higher here, too," said Kissinger. She said her parents can absorb the impending tuition increase and scholarship reduction, but it'll be "a double whammy" because her sister's also on Bright Futures at a community college.
Florida State junior Sarah Burke, 22, a sociology major from Tallahassee, has a part-time job as a bank teller but can't work longer hours to cover the increased expense because she must go to school full-time to keep her Bright Futures scholarship.
"Mom and Dad'll take care of it as much as they can because none of us want me to take out a loan," Burke said. "With the economy the way it is I don't really want my parents to have to cover that much."