Gabriela Fowler has a 4.7 GPA, takes college-level calculus and statistics courses, and is the president of her school’s business leadership club. But for the 17-year-old Hialeah High senior, a college scholarship funded by the record-setting revenues of the Florida Lottery somehow remains out of reach.
Like many low-income and minority students in Miami-Dade County, Fowler has been shut out by tougher eligibility requirements for Bright Futures college scholarships. A few years ago, her SAT and ACT scores would have been high enough to earn money that, along with federal financial aid, would have covered most of her college costs. Instead, Fowler is now scrambling to find a way to pay for college.
She’s far from alone.
Since the Florida Legislature started instituting tougher standards tied to higher test scores beginning in 2011, Miami-Dade schools with large populations of low-income and African-American and Hispanic students have seen a drastic decrease in the number of students who qualify for what has long been billed as the Lottery’s primary payout for education.
At Hialeah High, where many students come from immigrant families and speak Spanish at home, almost a fifth of the graduating class qualified for the scholarship funding in 2011. By 2015, the most recent year for which statewide data is available, that number dropped to 8 percent. At Homestead High, which has similar demographics, 25 students were eligible for the scholarships in 2011. Four years later, only three students qualified. And at Miami Jackson High, where almost all of the students are low-income, just 2 percent of the graduating class qualified in 2015.
“We have the GPA, we have the grades, we have the other requirements, everything is there except the test scores,” Fowler said.
When lawmakers changed the scholarship standards, they said the goal was to control spiraling costs in the wake of Florida’s foreclosure crisis and plummeting government revenue. Now, the economy is again humming, revenue has rebounded and the Florida Lottery has seen record-breaking sales for five years in a row, earning more than $6 billion last year.
But the Bright Futures program last year dropped to the lowest level of funding since 2003. Money paid out for scholarships has been cut nearly in half over seven years and the number of incoming freshmen awarded last year was almost as low as when the program was created in 1997. And, along with hiking the standards, lawmakers have cut the size of the awards.
Photo credit: Patrick Farrell, Miami Herald staff