Florida lawmakers returned from much of their plan to gutter a beloved higher education scholarship after significant setbacks from students and parents.
More than 110,000 college students received the merit-based Bright Futures scholarship in 2020, but that number may have been significantly reduced after Republican State Sen. Dennis Baxley introduced Senate Bill 86. His proposal said only students entering areas that he believes would provide high-paying jobs could receive the award, which pays between 75 and 100 percent of in-state tuition at public and private universities.
If passed, SB 86 would have left students who wanted to study history, art, or English without money for a scholarship that has been part of Florida̵
“It was devastating,” high school student Alexandro Valdez, 16, said of the proposal. “A politician said my dreams were not worth financing.”
The merit-based scholarship uses money from the state lottery and is awarded to highly educated students based on a combination of high school credits, standardized test scores, volunteer hours and GPA thresholds. Since 1997, this state has distributed $ 6.8 billion in tuition to more than 2.8 million students. But the proposed cuts did not stop at the restrictions for majors – SB 86 would also have reduced support for students who had already taken college or Advanced Placement courses in high school, and would have reduced the amount allocated to those who had certain others scholarships.
Valdez was not alone in his ire. Students, parents, art groups and others said SB 86 would ruin a program that in some cases makes inaccessible educational opportunities available to the state’s best students. Students currently in the program said they were blind, as were high school students who had planned their entire high school education around the scholarship.
“If our education gets messy with, our thoughts and input should be considered,” Valdez said.
He and a group of teenagers from Orlando and Tallahassee jumped into action. They set up a website, “Save Bright Futures”, which provided information on what was happening and how they could help. Annotating the bill to make it available to a wider audience, they laid down implications and urged other Florida residents to sign petitions, summon representatives and go to Senate hearings and testimony.
Kaylee Duong, 18, who helped organize the Save Bright Futures campaign, said the proposed changes put her in a tough spot. Duong, a senior, is currently trying to decide where to go to college. Both of her older brothers were recipients of the scholarship, and as she went through middle and high school, her family made sure she got all the requirements in place so she could receive it, too. SB 86 prompted Duong to consider colleges outside the state where she thought her financial support might be more stable.
“It is safe to say that if this did not happen, it would be a much easier choice and I would probably attend in-state,” she said. Not lost on Duong is part of the point with Bright Futures is to prevent brain drain and keep the state’s smartest students at home.
One of Duong’s co-organizers, Lorenzo Urayan, who wants to go to art school, was concerned that he would not be able to afford college unless he studied something that state legislators considered more “practical” during the proposed changes.
“I think both STEM and the humanities are important,” said Urayan, 17. “It’s not fair for politicians to decide what to study.”
Duong and Urayan were not alone in their anger. In his letter to fellow senators in March announcing the withdrawal of some of the most controversial changes, Baxley wrote “We have awakened a giant.”
An imperfect item
While Baxley’s withdrawal of his revisions was a major victory for students struggling to save the scholarship, lawyers and other lawmakers said the fight continues.
“It’s still not a good bill,” the rep said. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who received the Bright Futures scholarship when she was in college.
Some lawmakers in the House are now proposing a cut in the scholarship, which would save $ 37 million.
“Big changes are off the table for now,” Eskamani said, “but students who need this textbook scholarship deserve this access.”
The program itself is not perfect either. Black students make up more than 21 percent of Florida’s K-12 students, but only 6 percent of Bright Futures recipients are black. And while white students compromise 36 percent of total students, they have made up more than half of the scholarship recipients each year since the program began.
Researchers have found that state-sponsored merit assistance can often provide money to already advantageous students and is not focused on improving access for disadvantaged students, said Justin Ortagus, director of the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida’s College of Education.
Ortagus, himself the recipient of the scholarship, said that does not mean that profit-making programs do not succeed in their intended purpose.
“We have to be honest about what we prioritize, and profit assistance is not the mechanism to close gaps in equity,” he said. A program like Bright Futures “makes a lot of sense for the state” because its goal is to keep the state’s best and clearest at home so they can contribute to the local economy and increase the prestige of local institutions, Ortagus said.
While the program does not explicitly aim to help low-income students, it does end up helping many, including Ortagus, who grew up with low-income and went to the school where he now teaches with 100 percent of his tuition.
SB 86, he suspects, would only have exacerbated inequality that is already endemic to many merit assistance programs.
The students who helped fight to save the scholarship said they know it is not perfect and that the experience of successfully lobbying the state legislature to save Bright Futures has inspired them to continue fighting for fairer higher education in Florida
“Bright futures have always had disproportionately smaller black and brown receivers because of the SAT requirement,” said Thomas Truong, a 16-year-old organizer of Save Bright Futures. “What this would have done is limit it even more to minorities.”
“We want education to be accessible to all,” he said. Now he feels like he can be a voice to make it happen.