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Data shows 40 percent of Bright Futures students qualify for need-based aid

There's a long-held belief among many Floridians that students who receive the Bright Futures Scholarship Award, which pays for almost all students' tuition costs depending on their grades and test scores, are rich. Some call it the "Mercedes Benz" scholarship, implying that recipients' parents use the saved tuition money to buy their kids fancy cars. That's not exactly the case, according to newly released data.

It turns out that 41 percent of students who qualify for the merit-based award are also eligible for need-based federal aid, including Pell Grants. And 24 percent are eligible for need-based aid from state or university sources. That data was gleaned from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid applications that students are now required to fill out before getting Bright Futures awards -- presented to the Florida Senate's higher education appropriations committee Tuesday morning.

"This has shown us that the Bright Futures is reaching out to all students who excel at their academics," said committee Chair Sen. Evelyn Lynn. "It's not just that you're very, very rich or your very poor. It's a total mix of students." 

Lynn said is important that lawmakers fully understand the popular scholarship program -- and who is getting it -- before they even talk about making major changes. Funded by the lottery, money for the program has been drying up in recent years. Meanwhile, award amounts have been capped, and some standards have been tightened. 

The FAFSA requirement, which went into effect last year, caused a stir among parents and students. Some complained they didn't know about it and nearly missed the deadline, or that the online form was a hassle. Others were nervous about disclosing parents' tax and income information.

Still, it seems many benefited from the new rule. In the 2010-2011 academic year, 70 percent of students filled out FAFSA and of those only 37 found out they qualified for federal aid  -- compared to the 41 percent this year.

-- Kim Wilmath