Local News

Toughened Bright Futures eligibility may hit grads hard

— Stella Maldonado, who wants to major in nutrition, graduated from Sebring High School last year with a Florida Medallion scholarship through Bright Futures, a merit-based program that is largely funded through lottery money.

Last year, she remembers the state increasing the number of volunteer hours required to be considered eligible for Bright Futures.

What also went up were the minimum SAT and ACT test scores required, a step increase the Legislature enacted in 2011 but one that may especially hit hard students graduating this year.

New high school graduates would have to score at least 1170 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT and maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average for the Medallion scholarship, the most popular of the three Bright Futures scholarships open to students.

It’s a jump of 150 points for the SAT test and four points for the ACT from last year.

The Florida Academic Scholars, the most academically rigorous, requires a 1,290 minimum on the SAT and 29 for the ACT. A third scholarship is available for those going into vocational courses.

Avon Park High School guidance counselor Rosemary Webb said the changes affect all her students.

“Twenty-six is a fairly rigorous score,” she said. The school is advising students to start testing for their SATs or ACTs in their junior year or sooner if they are taking advanced classes, she said.

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The new state rules may slash the number of Florida students eligible for the Florida Medallion scholarship, according to a 2013 analysis by the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“Almost all freshmen at the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida and Florida State University received scholarships last school year. But under the tougher rules, about half of the students entering UCF in 2014, two-thirds of FSU students and three-quarters of UF students would qualify, according to the USF analysis,” a 2013 Orlando Sentinel report states.

Almost all freshmen entering historically black Florida A&M University would not qualify in 2014, the report adds.

Black and Hispanic students would be the hardest hit, but students from families whose incomes are too high to qualify for federal Pell Grants also will have a tough time, J. Robert Spatig, an assistant vice president at USF, told the Sentinel.

“The largest number of students affected are those with the highest financial need,” he said.

At its peak, the program provided college scholarships to one in three high school graduates, according to Florida’s College Access Network, an advocacy group.

“Estimates now show that only one in eight high school graduates will benefit from the program this school year once significant increases to test score requirements are enforced. This translates to approximately 20,000 less graduating seniors qualifying for Bright Futures compared to just a year ago,” the group maintains.

It called for the state to roll back the eligibility criteria to last year’s levels, but no changes have been enacted so far in this year’s legislative session.

“The impact of these cuts to Bright Futures comes at a time when college affordability in our state is a hot-button issue,” the group adds.

Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, disagrees.

“Bright Futures is a merit-based scholarship program. Because of that, we are continually refining how ‘merit’ is defined based on how much the state can afford to award,” she said.

“Suggestions that Bright Futures is intentionally skewed against minorities are misinformed. It is simply based on the merit of students’ academic performance. That said, need-based aid is also funded at substantial levels by the state, and gets a boost in this year’s proposed budget,” Grimsley added.

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Florida Department of Education figures show Bright Futures money going to Highlands County’s private and public school students has steadily declined since the test score requirements became more stringent.

In 2012-13, $799,716 was awarded to county students, down from $830,632 in 2011-12. The highest amount local students received since the program’s inception in 1997 was $1.26 million in 2008-09.

Academic scholars get $103 per credit hour in a four-year university and $63 at a two-year college. Medallion scholars attending a four-year university receive $77 for every credit hour and $63 for a two-year institution.

Maldonado said college would have been tougher for her if she had not received the scholarship. Her cousin, Eduardo Maldonado, thinks the changes will edge out students who may have otherwise qualified in earlier years.

Students these days have to be “super low middle class to be able to get any (financial) help,” he said of need-based financial aid programs.

Nontraditional student Teresa McGovern, who went back to get her bachelor’s degree in supervision and management at South Florida State College and will be part of its second graduating class, thinks the changes are long-overdue.

“They needed to raise the requirements,” she said.

She said by upping the eligibility rules, students will become more disciplined about their academics and have more incentive to continue with higher education after obtaining a two-year degree.

She’s worked hard to keep good grades, she said, and instilled the importance of hard work in her kids when they were little.

“I see so many students get their Bright Futures,” she said. “And they bomb out because they can’t handle the workload (in college).”