As Florida lawmakers try to rein in state spending in a financial atmosphere still showing signs of a recession, high school students applying for Bright Futures may find it more difficult to earn the scholarship than past graduating classes.
The Florida State Legislature, in the wake of ongoing debates about the program's drain on the state's budget, has implemented its proposal to increase the baseline requirements for high school seniors applying for the scholarship.
Students are also required to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prior to scholarship disbursement, even if they are not applying for any grants, scholarships or awards other than Bright Futures.
Ninety-seven percent of in-state freshmen at UF receive Bright Futures, said Rick Wilder, interim director for the Office of Student Financial Affairs.
Wilder said at the latest projections for the 2010-2011 year, $77,498,667 in Bright Futures scholarships had been disbursed to 26,292 students at UF. He said that number represented 74 percent of in-state undergraduate students.
High-school students graduating this spring will be the first to apply for the Bright Futures scholarship with the program's new, higher requirements.
The Florida Department of Education has outlined changes to Bright Futures, which will increase annually, through the 2013-2014 school year.
All three award levels have an increased community service requirement.
The Florida Academic Scholars award requirement has increased from 75 to 100 community service hours.
The Florida Medallion Scholars and Florida Gold Seal Vocational Scholars awards, for which there have been no community service requirements previously, will now require 75 and 30 community service hours, respectively.
Students in the high school graduating class of 2011 and before had to earn an SAT score of 970 or an ACT score of 20 to receive the Florida Medallion Scholars award, also formerly known as the 75-percent-tuition award.
To receive the same award this year, students must achieve a 980 on the SAT or a 21 on the ACT.
There will be no academic requirement changes to the Florida Academic Scholars award until the 2012-2013 school year, when the required baseline SAT score will increase from 1270 to 1280.
The following year, the required SAT score will increase an additional 10 points and the required ACT score will increase one point, from 28 to 29.
Requirements for receiving the Florida Medallion Scholars award will also increase annually after this year, with students being required to achieve a 1020 on the SAT or a 22 on the ACT during 2012-2013.
The following year the requirements will increase by 30 points on the SAT and one point on the ACT.
Bright Futures isn't the only financial aid program being altered.
Federal Pell Grants have been reduced, and some grants, such as the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant, have been eliminated.
According to a recent Alligator article, grants and scholarship programs at UF were cut by $20 million in the 2011-2012 school year.
During the 2010-2011 school year, Wilder said the university disbursed $238,931,590 in loans.
The total amount of financial aid UF disbursed in the 2010-2011 school year was $540,117,519.
Because Bright Futures is merit-based, not need-based, Wilder said it's impossible to calculate how many students are dependent on the scholarship to pay for tuition; a portion of the students who take Bright Futures would still be able to pay tuition out of pocket.
Others would have to take loans or register for fewer credit hours per semester to balance the cost.
Wilder said he doesn't know exactly what would happen if the Bright Futures scholarship program were to disappear, but eliminating the $77 million that funded expenses for students would certainly have a major impact.
"It's not chump change," he said. "It would be a pretty big blow to me [if I were a student]. That's a lot of money to lose."
Lou Gilman, the College Assistance Program adviser at South Dade Senior High School in Homestead, Fla., said her last two graduating classes were more concerned than earlier graduating classes about what they could do to finance their educations.
Since 2008, her students, like the rest of the United States, have been bombarded with news of the recession.
Although high-school students are usually somewhat oblivious to the cost of college, she said, she's seen them become more fearful of the idea that someday Bright Futures may not exist.
Gilman said she's making her students aware of the changes to Bright Futures requirements and encouraging them to seek private scholarships to offset the cost of college tuition.
The new requirements' impact on students, she said, is "huge, and it's going to be huge across the state."
She noted that the increase in community service hours required for both the Florida Academic Scholar and Florida Medallion Scholar awards will be particularly problematic.
Students in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities who have to work to help their families financially may not have 75 to 100 community service hours to give between working and keeping their grades up, she said.
Although she said she thinks community service is invaluable, the increase could keep a portion of hardworking students from receiving the top Bright Futures award.
In addition to encouraging them to apply for as many scholarships as possible, Gilman said she encourages her students to register to vote. Being informed about representatives' platforms on policies such as Bright Futures gets the students involved on a visceral level, she said, because legislators are making decisions that directly affect the students.
"I've given up on waiting for adults to change the world," Gilman said.