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Senate pushes major Bright Futures changes to save money

The Senate's higher education proposal for the coming year is some $373 million more than what the House budget committee unveiled last week, but the most notable part of the Senate proposal is the suggested overhaul for Bright Futures, the popular merit scholarship program that -- until recently -- lawmakers have been reluctant to touch.

The Senate proposal (foreshadowed in a meeting last month) not only caps the tuition at current-year levels (even though tuition is likely to go up by as much as 15 percent for universities next year.) It also:

  • Raises the GPA and SAT requirements.
  • Shrinks from 7 years to 4 years the time in which students have to get their tuition covered.
  • Shrinks the maximum number of credits covered by Bright Futures from 110 percent of the number required for a degree to 100 percent.
  • Removes the provision that students who lose their eligibility because of a low college GPA can get the scholarship back. Once you lose it, you would be out of luck for the rest of college.
  • Requires Bright Futures students to fill out a financial disclosure form -- suggesting lawmakers are moving toward turning it from a merit program to a need-based program.

Senate budget committee chair Evelyn Lynn conceded the changes are significant, but she said they are unavoidable given the rising cost of Bright Futures. Already this year, the state is facing a $6 million Bright Futures deficit.

"If we don't do something we'll have to eliminate it altogether, and I don't think anyone wants to do that," said Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. "If you are a meritorious student, we'd like to see that you follow through and get finished. Bright Futures is supposed to be for students who really work hard and get moving."

But Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said the changes would unfairly hurt working students and non-traditional students who are juggling families and finances.

"There are some students like at Miami-Dade college who are part-time students," Gelber said. "Some people simply can't do it in four years if they have a family or other issues."

The Senate's proposed budget calls for a total of $450 million for Bright Futures, or $31.4 million more than the current year. But that hike covers growing student enrollment in the program, and $73 million of the Bright Futures pot would come from federal stimulus.