I’m not sure if you caught Fred Grimm’s piece in Sunday’s Herald: Cuts to Bright Futures Show Talk About Investing in Florida’s Future is All Rhetoric.  

In case you didn’t, here are the Spark Notes.

1. The latest budget out of Tallahassee reduces The Bright Futures Scholarships program by more than $50 million – to $266 million from $309 million last year.

2. That means there will be 20,000 fewer recipients of Bright Futures Scholarships this Fall than in previous years.

Reducing the budget for Bright Futures is not new. Consider that just six years ago, Bright Futures was allocated nearly double what it is today.  Its budget has been whittled down each year since, both by reducing the amount covered with each stipend  and by increasing the requirements for earning an award (thereby reducing the eligible pool).  Two years ago, the legislature began requiring that students submit a FAFSA (a Federal financial aid application that determines need-based eligibility) to be eligible for the decidedly NEED-BLIND, merit-based Bright Futures scholarship.  Note that this practice was discontinued this year.   Instead, legislators have turned their cost-cutting attention to raising the test score criteria.  While there will be no change to the GPA criteria, students graduating this Spring will now need a score of 1170 on their SAT or a 26 on the ACT.  For perspective, last year a 1020 on the SAT or a 22 on the ACT qualified a student for Bright Futures… and just three years ago a 970 on the SAT was enough.  This is a big and very controversial measure.  Test scores are known to have a socio-economic bias and the US Department of Justice is currently investigating the Bright Futures program to determine if these changes are discriminatory.

While the outcome of that investigation remains to be seen, I maintain that the future of Bright Futures remains as dim as ever, at least in its currrent form. For my readers (and my clients), this should not raise eyebrows:  my concerns about the tenuous Future of Bright Futures are pretty well documented.   For years I’ve been writing about our legislators’ concerns about the program’s viability and its failure to meet its initial mandate.
When the state legislature passed the Bright Futures Scholarship Program in 1997, the hope was that more of Florida’s best high school graduates would stay in state and that the number of students graduating with highly sought science, technology, engineering and math (STEM disciplines) degrees would increase.  Turns out the program’s founders were half right.   More than 2 million Bright Futures awards have been disbursed and our state university enrollment has indeed soared (see also last week’s article on admit rates).   But enrollment in STEM fields?  That’s actually gone down in percentage terms!  One plausible explanation — our students are taking easier classes to make sure that they maintain the GPA requirements to re-qualify for the award.

So even if Fred Grimm didn’t write about this particular unintended consequence in his column, to me the writing is still on the wall.  It’s a widely held (and statistically measurable) belief that a properly educated, high-tech workforce can jumpstart a lagging economy.  A steady pipeline of skilled technical employees keep and attract businesses.  Our students need to become them.  Our schools need to grow them.    So long as Bright Futures remains an annually reviewed merit-based scholarship with GPA and test scores as the sole criterion, students will be discouraged from pursuing this type of difficult STEM study.  And this is economically unsustainable.   Clearly, Bright Futures is ripe for an immediate overhaul as a tiered subsidy to students pursuing STEM disciplines.  I suspect that it won’t be long before our cash-strapped government reinvents the Bright Futures as the competitive employment tool it was intended as.

And what does this mean for you? Well, it’s still just a theory today (albeit one that is becoming more and more a reality with each legislative session), but if you’re the parent of a future college bound child, I personally think it unwise to count on this program when considering your funding options.  Bright Futures’ future is anything but assured.   One of the questions I’m most often asked is whether a private university or an out of state college education can be equally or even more affordable than an in-state one.  You’d be surprised by how many middle class families find this to be the case.  The key is having a true understanding of how colleges price and discount admissions and then using that information to create an admissions strategy that will meet your student’s academic, social and aspirational needs, and your family’s budget.  In today’s world, admissions and funding go hand in hand – each helps inform the other.  That’s why I discuss both at  my workshops... and given that we had an overwhelming response to my last two classes, I actually added one more class in June.   It’s free and open to the public, and you can click here to learn more and reserve a seat.

One note –  I’ll be doing my annual visits with college admissions and financial aid officers in July (we’re touring schools in North Carolina and the mid-Atlantic – more on where I’ll be soon)… and I’ll be continuing to work on applications with my students in late June thru August (the common app goes live on August 1).  This will therefore be the last public workshop I’ll be holding until school resumes in late August.  If you’re the parent of a 10th or an 11th grader in particular, I highly recommend that you try to come to the class in June — before you get caught up in the middle of the coming Admissions cycle (for rising 12th graders) and/or test cycle (for rising 11th graders).

I hope to see you there.

Best wishes,
Peter

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