by Ursula Perano
If your family has a child even remotely near the age of attending college, chances are you’ve heard the term “Bright Futures” being thrown around. Whether by a teacher, a school staff member, or even from your own child, the phrase is often made to seem so relevant without any explanation. Yet, there is no need to fret. For any families out there who have been looking for a breakdown of what Bright Futures is, how it pertains to your child’s education, and what to expect from it in the future, we’ve got your back.
The Bright Futures Scholarship Program was established in 1997 by the Florida Department of Education, with a goal of offering students an alternative method to fund their college education. More than 725,000 students across the state of Florida have used the program to help cover the cost of obtaining their technical, 2-year, or 4-year degree. Requirements for the program are based both on academic merit, focusing on student’s GPA and college entrance exam scores, as well as verified community service hours that they earn throughout their time in high school. Students have until the end of their senior year to meet the requirements for the program and to submit all application materials. Funding is only available for students pursuing a degree at an in-state institution. Award amounts are organized into three different levels for students to then qualify for the Florida Academic Scholar, the Florida Medallion Scholar, or the Florida Gold Seal CAPE and Vocational Scholar. The requirements and award amounts for the 2017-18 school year are as follows:
- Florida Academic Scholar: Students are required to have a minimum 3.5 weighted GPA, 29 on the ACT or 1290 on the SAT, and 100 hours of community service. Recipients will have 100% of their tuition covered at any public university or college in Florida for the fall, spring, and summer semesters. Students will also receive a $300 stipend in the Fall and Spring semesters to help cover any additional educational expenses.
- Florida Medallion Scholar: Students are required to have a minimum 3.0 weighted GPA, 26 on the ACT or 1170 on the SAT, and 75 hours of community service. Recipients will be granted $39 per credit hour at a career or technical center, $63 per credit hour at a 2-year institution, and $77 per credit hour at a 4-year institution. Student aid at this level is only available for the fall and spring semesters.
- Gold Seal Vocational Scholars and Gold Seal CAPE Scholars: Students for both the vocational and CAPE awards must have a minimum 3.0 weighted GPA, and have obtained the required scores per section on their college entrance exams. The minimum accepted scores for the ACT are 19 in reading, 17 in English, and 19 in mathematics. For the SAT, for tests taken March 1st, 2016 and after that the scores are 24 in reading, 25 in writing and language, and 24 in math. GSV and GSC Scholars are also able to qualify via the PERT test, with required scores of 106 in reading, 103 in writing, and 114 in mathematics. In addition to these academic requirements, students must have also completed 30 community service hours. The Vocational Scholars Program is for students pursuing a career certificate, for which they will receive $39 per credit hour. The CAPE Scholars Program is for students who are pursuing a technical degree program, which includes Associates in Science (AS) degrees as well as Associates in Applied Science (AAS) degrees from a 2-year institution. Recipients of the CAPE Scholar Award will receive $48 per credit hour, and upon completion of an AS or AAS degree may continue to receive the $48 per credit hour for up to 60 more credit hours at a 4-year institution while in pursuit of a Bachelors of Science (BS). Student aid at this level is only available for the fall and spring semesters.
Don’t get too comfortable though, because unless your child graduated high school this past school year and already cashed out on their Bright Futures, you can expect that these requirements and award amounts will have changed by their turn to qualify. As a state managed initiative, Bright Futures is subject to alterations every spring during Florida’s legislative session. Most recently during the 2017 legislative session, the program saw significant changes, but only to the top award. Previously throughout the 2016-17 school year, Florida Academic Scholars were only able to receive $103 per credit hour at a 4-year institution, $63 per credit hour at a 2-year institution, and $52 per credit hour for students pursuing a technical certificate or degree. However, by an unusual circumstance, the increase for top winners to 100% tuition coverage is only temporary. The bill that would have made the coverage increase permanent, Senate Bill 374, was vetoed by Governor Rick Scott due to the fact that he did not agree with all of the legislation that was proposed. It is only due to the fact that the funding had already been worked into the approved state budget, which Scott did ultimately sign, that the increase will be able to be provided to its 45,000 recipients throughout the 2017-18 school year. Unless a bill is approved in the 2018 legislative session to secure this new award for top winner, the award’s amount will return to its previously lower coverage during the 2018-19 school year.
Florida House Representative Ramon Alexander, who represents District 8 which includes East Tallahassee, says that “As we look at creating greater access and opportunities, I believe that Bright Futures has to continue to evolve.” Alexander, who considers education to be one of his top priorities, characterized the increase to 100% tuition coverage for top winners to be a step in the right direction. He specifically cited that he had supported the scholarship being offered throughout the summer semester. In previous years, complaints have surfaced about the lack thereof, vouching that not providing the program during the summer semester limits the pace by which Bright Futures dependent students can complete their degree. When asked about the rationale behind the development of this increase and the logistics of its funding, Alexander stated “You look at the billions of dollars we have in the state budget, we voted on an $83-million-dollar budget, it’s not a matter of can we do it, it’s a matter of priority.”
Regarding the future of the program though, Representative Alexander feels there is still work to be done to ensure access to higher education for all of Florida’s students. Stating that “When we begin to mellow out and streamline education, it becomes this, what’s the word, this elite type thing. I think for us to continue to move Florida forward we need to take a different approach.” The different approach Alexander proposes is to structure Bright Futures so that it takes not only academic and community service metrics into consideration, but socioeconomic factors as well. When asked if he sees Bright Futures as a way that Florida is investing in its students, he responded by saying “Not if there are no ties to economic conditions and dynamics. Because you can see in many respects a direct correlation [of] economic conditions to access in educational opportunities.”
Alexander is not the first to take issue with the non-need-based approach the Bright Futures Program functions by. A study done by the Florida College Access Network in 2012 looked into the household incomes for students receiving scholarships from the program. Results showed that 32.8% of Bright Futures recipients came from households with an annual income of less than $20,000, with the average per household being $9,073.56. However, 29.6% of recipients were found to have come from households with annual incomes higher than $100,001 per year. 15.1% of recipients came from households making between $100,001-150,000 per year with an average per household of $121,815.18. The remaining 14.5% came from households making more than $150,000 a year, with an average income per household of $350,604.03. In comparison to some of the most liberal college-tuition plans, a household income of $100,000-$125,000 per year has tended to be the cut-off point for coverage. For example, New York’s newly instated tuition-free higher education system is only accessible to students whose families make less than $100,000 annually. After the program has been in place for three years, the cap will be increased to $125,000, but no further increases have been outlined after that point.
As for the need for the Florida Legislature to make the scholarship increase permanent, it is merely a waiting game until the 2018 legislative session. When asked if he would support the changes as is next year or if he would continue to advocate for a system of need-based aid, Representative Alexander responded by saying “I’m going to continue to put on the table the social-economic dynamics in regards to education.” He continued on to say that the Florida Legislature needs to “use the social-economic gap as the barometer for social-economic advancement” and that doing so will “help determine where those funds need to go.”
Nevertheless, in the meantime, Bright Futures remains as a goal for all Florida high schoolers to work towards. Even if requirements or awards may change, it is still an opportunity for students to gain additional funding towards furthering their education. Whether it only ever covers a few classes or it covers everything down to your child’s pen and paper, college truly is a time where every penny is going to count. For any families interested in learning more about the Bright Futures Scholarship Program and how to begin enrolling your child in it, visit floridastudentfinancialaid.org and click on the “State Grants, Scholarships, and Applications” tab to get started.
For more information on the future of Bright Futures click here. Ursula Perano is a college student pursuing political