FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business

Florida's 'Bright Futures' merit-aid program should be retooled

The state started Bright Futures in 1997 to give high school students an incentive to work harder at their studies, to help retain the best and brightest students within Florida and to build a better labor force. The merit-aid program has succeeded at its goals. It's popular, costly — and unsustainable. Bright Futures grew from $70 million its first year to $329 million in 2012-13, a 370% increase. The lottery, which funds the program, has trouble keeping up, and Bright Futures crowds out other worthy education spending that could be accomplished with lottery funds.

Recognizing this, the Legislature in recent years has tightened eligibility criteria and scaled back awards. It dropped the initial goal of covering a percentage of tuition and instead awards dollars on a per credit hour basis. Originally, the highest level of the three Bright Futures awards meant 100% tuition and a $600 annual stipend. That same honor now covers about 49% of tuition only.

More changes are needed. First, a minor tweak: To get Bright Futures, high school students have to do at least 30 and as many as 100 hours of community service. Students who do unpaid internships with local businesses should be allowed to count those hours toward requirements.

As for a larger solution, the state should return the highest-level award (Florida Academic Scholars) to a full tuition ride for all winners and add an annual stipend for STEM majors. That would return the program to its original idea of rewarding the best students. The lowest-level (the Gold Seal Vocational), for students heading to tech and vocational schools, should be retained largely as is. Not everyone should go to college; manufacturers complain of trouble finding skilled employees as much as IT companies complain of finding engineers.

The drastic change must come with the budget-busting middle award, the Medallion level that goes to average students. This year, Medallion winners accounted for 64% of Bright Futures outlays. Medallion winners numbered 110,063, compared to 40,407 who get the top award. The Medallion award should be phased out over time. The savings should go to fund the top award program and to increase spending on need-based aid, which has risen 284% since Bright Futures began but hasn't grown as fast as Bright Futures. In Bright Futures' first year, spending on need-based aid was 55% of the Bright Futures total. Now, it's 44%