Florida state lawmakers backed away from much of their plan to gut a beloved higher education scholarship program after a major backlash from students and parents.
More than 110,000 college students received the merit-based Bright Futures Scholarship in 2020, but that number could have dropped significantly after Republican State Senator Dennis Baxley introduced Senate Bill 86. Paid jobs could receive the award, which pays between 75 and 100 percent of state tuition at public and private universities.
If passed, SB 86 would have left out students who wanted to study history, the arts, or English, with no money for a scholarship that has been part of Florida’s higher education system since the 1990s. Students felt they were in for it. about to be forced to choose between scholarship money and your academic interests.
“It was devastating,” 16-year-old high school student Alexandro Valdez said of the proposal. “A politician said that my dreams were not worth financing.”
The merit-based scholarship uses money from the state lottery and is awarded to high-achieving students based on a combination of high school credits, standardized test scores, volunteer hours, and GPA thresholds. Since 1997, that state has distributed $ 6.8 billion in tuition to more than 2.8 million students. But the proposed cuts were not limited to restrictions on majors: SB 86 would also have reduced the aid given to students who had already taken college or advanced placement courses in high school, and it would have reduced the amount awarded to those who had certain other scholarships.
Valdez was not alone in his anger. Students, parents, art groups and others said that SB 86 would ruin a program that, in some cases, puts educational opportunities out of the reach of the best students in the state. Students currently in the program said they were surprised, as did high school students who had been planning their entire high school education around the scholarship.
“If our education is being disrupted, our thoughts and input must be considered,” Valdez said.
He and a group of teens from Orlando and Tallahassee jumped into action. They created a website, “Save Bright Futures,” that provided information on what was happening and how they could help. Commenting on the bill to make it accessible to a wider audience, they exposed the ramifications and encouraged Floridians to sign petitions, call representatives, attend Senate hearings and testify.
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 trying to decide where to go to college. Her two older brothers were recipients of the scholarship, and while she was in middle and high school, her family made sure that she met all the requirements so that she, too, could receive it. SB 86 caused Duong to take more seriously out-of-state colleges, where he thought his financial aid could be more stable.
“It’s safe to say that if this wasn’t happening, it would be a much easier option and I would probably assist the state,” he said. Don’t Miss Out on Duong is part of Bright Futures’ goal is to prevent brain drain and keep the state’s smartest students at home.
One of Duong’s fellow organizers, Lorenzo Urayan, who wants to go to art school, worried that he wouldn’t be able to afford college unless he studied something that state lawmakers deemed more “practical” under the proposed changes.
“I think both STEM and the humanities are important,” said 17-year-old Urayan. “It is not fair that politicians decide what you should study.”
Duong and Urayan were not alone in their outrage. In his letter to other state senators in March announcing the withdrawal of some of the most controversial changes, Baxley wrote “We have awakened a giant.”
An imperfect good
While Baxley’s removal from his reviews was a huge victory for students fighting to save the scholarship, advocates and other lawmakers said the fight continues.
“It’s still not a good bill,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who received the Bright Futures scholarship when she was in college.
Some House lawmakers are now proposing a cut to the textbook stipend on the scholarship, which would save $ 37 million.
“Big changes are off the table for now,” Eskamani said, “but students who need that textbook stipend deserve that access.”
The program itself is not perfect either. Black students make up more than 21 percent of Florida’s K-12 student population, but only 6 percent of Bright Futures recipients are black. And while white students make up 36 percent of total students, they have made up more than half of the scholarship recipients each year since the program’s inception.
Scholars have found that merit aid provided by the state can often give money to already-advantaged students and is not focused on improving access for underprivileged students, said Justin Ortagus, director of the College’s Institute of Higher Education. of Education from the University of Florida.
Ortagus, who also received the scholarship, said that does not mean that merit aid programs are not successful for their intended purpose.
“We have to be honest about what we are prioritizing, and merit aid is not the mechanism to close equity gaps,” he said. A program like Bright Futures “makes a lot of sense for the state” because its goals are to keep the best and brightest in the state at home so they can contribute to the local economy and increase the prestige of local institutions, Ortagus said.
While the program doesn’t explicitly aim to help low-income students, it ends up helping many, including Ortagus, who grew up low-income and went to the school where he now teaches with 100 percent of his tuition covered.
SB 86, he suspects, would only have exacerbated the inequality that is already endemic to many merit aid programs.
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 encouraged them to continue fighting for a more equitable higher education in Florida.
“Bright Futures has always had disproportionately fewer black and brown audiences due to the SAT requirement,” said Thomas Truong, a 16-year-old organizer for Save Bright Futures. “What this would have done is restrict it even more for minorities.”
“We want education to be accessible to everyone,” he said. Now, now you feel that you can be a voice for that to happen.