Bright Futures scholarships’ new popularity puts financial pressure on state legislators

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More Florida students are taking advantage of the Bright Futures scholarships, which pay full university or college tuition for top-performing students.

That’s a good thing for kids and families, but it means more money —  millions more.

And the scholarships’ rising popularity will put pressure on state lawmakers as they prepare to build a state budget for 2020-21, amid numerous financial priorities for Florida. The legislative session begins Jan. 14.

State analysts project that 118,132 students will qualify for the scholarships, which are funded through the Florida Lottery, next academic year – an increase of 4,703 students from this year, according to a report from the Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research.

The projected increase in students will boost the estimated cost for the Bright Futures scholarships to $652 million in 2020-21, a $26 million increase from this year, the report shows.

Analysts attribute the increasing popularity of the Bright Futures awards to the fact that lawmakers boosted the scholarships, beginning in the 2017-18 academic year, to cover 100 percent of the tuition and fees for top-performing students, who are known as Florida Academic Scholars.

The change also boosted the scholarships for Medallion Scholars – those in the second-tier of eligibility – to cover 75 percent of their tuition and fees, also as of the 2017-18 academic year.

During the coming year, the analysts project that 64,243 students will qualify for the top Bright Futures awards, with 52,908 students qualifying for the lower award.

Since 2017-18, the growth in the cost and number of Bright Futures scholarships has been significant. The latest estimate shows the number scholarships will have increased by 25.5 percent during the coming academic year, compared to 2017-18, with an additional 23,995 students receiving the awards.

The cost will have risen by 70 percent in 2020-21. The estimated $652 million price tag next year represents a $269 million increase since 2017-18, the report shows.

But there’s a Part 2: The number of scholarships will start to go down, which can disproportionately impact minorities and low-income families.

That’s because the rising cost and the popularity of the scholarships led to a change in the state law earlier this year, which will raise the qualifying scores on the SAT and ACT for students seeking Bright Futures scholarships.

[The SAT and ACT are college entrance exams. The SAT covers reading, writing and math; the ACT covers English, reading, math and science.] The changes will begin affecting high school students who graduate in spring 2021.

And the new report shows how those changes will limit future scholarships.

During the 2021-22 academic year, the Bright Futures awards will dip by just under 3,000 scholarships, compared to 2020-21, the report shows.

By the 2024-25 academic year, the Bright Futures awards will have dropped by almost 10,000 scholarships, compared to 2020-21.

And by 2024-25, the projected annual cost for the Bright Futures scholarships will be $585 million, a 10 percent decrease from the $652 million that will be spent in the coming year.

But the downside to those savings is that attempts to raise test scores for the Bright Futures scholars, studies show, can disproportionately hurt minority students  – who may come from lower-income families with fewer resources and who face tougher challenges than their white counterparts.

The Florida Phoenix previously reported on those changes.