Future of Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship on tap in Tuesday hearing

By John Haughey
The Center Square
March 15, 2021


The Senate Education Committee Tuesday will hear a proposed bill that would require the state’s largest college tuition assistance program to exclude recipients seeking degrees that don’t “lead directly to employment.”

The Senate panel will also get an earful from parents, Democrats and students – who are campaigning on campuses statewide against the measure – opposed to the reset when it convenes at 12:30 p.m. for what will likely be a very long afternoon.

Senate Bill 86, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, would require the state university system’s Board of Governors (BOG) and State Board of Education (SBE) to approve a list of career certificate, undergraduate and graduate degree programs “that lead directly to employment” beginning the 2022-23 academic year.

Baxley’s original bill was tabled last week before its debut hearing before the Senate Education Committee after concerns surfaced regarding changes to Bright Future’s tiered structure in scholarship funding. Instead, the revamped SB 86 ties the amount of students’ Bright Futures scholarships to the amount appropriated in the state budget.

When Baxley filed the bill on Feb. 23, he said taxpayers should not subsidize a college education unless it benefits society and the student, noting a sociology degree was worth “two bucks and a cup of coffee in most towns.”

“As taxpayers, we should all be concerned about subsidizing degrees that just lead to debt, instead of the jobs our students want and need,” Baxley said. “We encourage all students to pursue their passions, but when it comes to taxpayer subsidized education, there needs to be a link to our economy, and that is the goal of this legislation.”

Established in 1997 and funded by the Florida Lottery, the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program awards college tuition to high-achieving high school students.

Bright Futures recipients fall under two categories: Florida Academic Scholars or Florida Medallion Scholars. Florida Academic Scholars are awarded 100 percent of their tuition fees, while 75 percent of tuition is covered for Florida Medallion Scholars, according to the Bright Futures Student Handbook.

To qualify, Florida Academic Scholars must have a 3.5 GPA, 100 service hours and a 1330 on the SAT or a 29 on the ACT. Florida Medallion Scholars need a 3.0 GPA, 75 service hours and a 1210 on the SAT or a 25 on the ACT.

For the 2019-2020 fiscal year, $618.6 million was disbursed through Bright Futures to nearly 120,000 Florida high school graduates to attend a state university or college. About 25,190, or 71 percent of undergraduates at the University of Florida are Bright Futures recipients, according to the university.

The bill is opposed by Democrats and many advocacy groups, including the student-led Save Bright Futures, which created a Change.org petition that had nearly 103,000 signatures early Monday afternoon.

A Facebook group, Florida Voters Against Scholarship Cuts, has also emerged to oppose SB 26. It has more than 2,300 members.

A Save our Bright Futures mural surfaced this weekend in Gainesville, asking UF students to join the opposition under “#StopSB86” and “#KeepOurFutureBright” hashtags.

Despite opposition, Baxley’s bill has the blessing of the Legislature’s Republican leadership and is likely to advance.

“All too often the debate surrounding higher education focuses on the cost to the student, in terms of tuition and fees, but never the cost to the taxpayer or the actual value to the student,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. “The reality is a degree does not guarantee a job. This legislation rebalances state financial aid programs to cover the cost of tuition and fees for general education requirements and then for targeted programs that we know will lead to jobs in our communities.”