Bright Futures scholarship undergoes change in Florida

Florida students aiming for the state's "Bright Futures" scholarship, you better make sure you have good grades. And don't expect the scholarship to cover all of your college expenses.

That's because, thanks to the recession, Florida lawmakers passed recent changes to cut state spending on the Bright Futures scholarship program by more than $100 million a year. What does that mean for you? The Bright Futures scholarship, once an easy catch for many Florida students, is not so easy to get – nor hold onto once you have it.

The Bright Futures scholarship program was started in 1997 with the goal of keeping Florida students from leaving the state for college elsewhere. It's funded by the Florida lottery and has awarded more than $3 billion to half a million students in the past 13 years. However, as the recession has gotten rockier, tightening government funds and reducing the amount of money people have to spend on lottery tickets, the number of students who can qualify for the Bright Futures scholarship has quadrupled.

Here are the big upcoming changes to Bright Futures scholarships:
  • In the past, a Bright Futures scholarship paid a set percentage of tuition – the Academic Scholars program paid 100% of tuition for eligible students, while the Medallion scholarship paid 75% – but now they pay a set of flat rates per credit hour. Academic Scholars get $125 per credit hour, and Medallion scholars get $94 per credit hour. Average tuition and fees at Florida's state universities is $165 per credit hour.

  • Starting with this year's college freshman class, a Bright Futures scholarship only covers the credit hours a student needs to graduate. Before, there was a 10% cushion.

  • Students who let their grades slip have one chance to earn back the award while still in college. But starting with this year's freshman class, they'll only have the opportunity to do it in their freshman year. No chance available in the following three years.

  • Hit by criticism that a Bright Futures scholarship is too easy to get, Florida has raised the minimum SAT scores needed to win one. Higher minimum SAT scores for Medallion scholarships will kick in for this year's class of high school juniors. Higher qualifying scores for the Academic Scholars award go into effect for this year's sophomores.
These changes mean that obviously high school students need to study hard for their SAT scores. And students pondering college don't have time to ponder what they want to do with their futures. "You better come to school knowing exactly what you want your major to be," says Billie Hamilton, financial aid director for the University of South Florida. "If you deviate from that, you're obviously going to have to pay for it some other way."

And once you're in college, you better hit the books and study hard to keep those grades up. If you slack off in sophomore or junior year, you can kiss your Bright Futures scholarship goodbye.

Bill Proctor, a Florida state representative who voted for changes to the Bright Futures scholarship program, acknowledges the new rules make funding college more of a challenge for students. "But we would not be able to fund it if we hadn't made the changes we did," Proctor said.
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