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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The first week of class is a wonderful, joyous week - it's financial aid disbursement time. So when 73 percent of you collect your Bright Futures checks, think about the implications of that money.

The Bright Futures Scholarship Program has become a great entitlement that gives every high school graduate who can manage a 970 SAT - hardly Ivy League - a practically free education.

But this was never the intent of the program. The program was developed to encourage the brightest Florida students who might otherwise go to out of state institutions to stay in state - hence a well-educated Florida with a "Bright Future."

It didn't take long for the Florida Legislature, in all of its infinite wisdom, to completely undermine every intention of this program. Bright Futures is now a public entitlement available to nearly every student who wants it.

The problems this creates become strikingly apparent when the economy is down. Bright Futures is limited to the amount of funding it receives from the lottery, yet it is set up as an entitlement for anyone who meets the requirements. This is great for students, even those who don't qualify for Bright Futures, but it keeps our higher education in the gutter. Florida is not going anywhere but down in the rankings if it keeps cutting departments because of budget woes.

How can we turn this upper-middle-class entitlement back to a program designed to keep Florida's best and brightest in state?

Look only to the program that has nothing to do with keeping Florida's best - the Florida Medallion Scholars Award (FMS), which pays 75 percent tuition to anyone who meets the minimum requirements - a 3.0 weighted high school GPA and a 970 composite SAT score.

In other words, FMS creates an entitlement for anyone who meets pitifully low testing requirements. Most of these students wouldn't get any sort of scholarship to an out of state school, so it makes no sense to pay them to stay in state. Yet this program accounts for 75 percent of all Bright Futures disbursement.

I say, abolish the 75 percent FMS program.

The 100 percent Florida Academic Scholars (FAS) program applies to only the top 15 percent of college-bound students, so we should keep it as a legitimate means to keep the best students in state. With FMS abolished, FAS would have plenty of funding. We could then afford to raise tuition at Florida's schools to competitive levels.

Since the FMS program makes up three quarters of all Bright Futures spending, there would still be plenty of money left over after raising tuition. We could use this money to fund need-based scholarships for those who otherwise couldn't afford college.

These are often the same people shut of out of Bright Futures because they can't meet the arbitrary testing requirements. Gone would be the days of Bright Futures as an upper-middle-class entitlement - it would go only to those who earn it and those who need it.

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Those on the 75 percent program who don't qualify for need-based aid may just have to do something unheard of in our welfare state: pay a bit for college.

College is an investment. Investments aren't supposed to be free.

So happy financial aid week to everyone! Enjoy your entitlements, courtesy of the state of Florida.

Johnathan Lott is political science and economics sophomore. His column appears on Thursdays.

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