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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Revamp of Bright Futures Scholarships Gets Moving After Rewrite, Party-Line Vote

Senate President Wilton Simpson says since the scholarships are funded through state money, the state has a right to examine where those dollars are going and what they’re being used on.

Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley’s plan to revamp the state’s bright futures scholarship program is moving again after a significant rewrite of the bill. The proposal ties funding to academic programs the state determines lead to jobs, but instead of completely cutting off funding to students who don’t choose majors from a state approved list — the bill reduces the scholarships. Yet, even with the modifications, the bill is still drawing opposition.

The original version of Baxley’s bill required students to choose majors from a state-approved list or risk losing out on funding for their junior and senior years. The bill was temporarily postponed before its first hearing last week amid opposition from student-led groups. Speaking to reporters a few days Later, Senate President Wilton Simpson said revisions were in the works but that the goal of the bill remained the same.

“What we want to make sure of is, if we send anyone to university or college with a Bright Future it actually leads to a bright future. So our concern is, are there degrees that don’t lead to jobs?” Simpson said while speaking with reporters.

He has endorsed the bill and says since the scholarships are funded through state money, the state has a right to examine where those dollars are going and what they’re being used on.

“So we’re still going to be looking to scale back the Bright Futures portion of that opportunity if it doesn’t lead to a job. but it doesn’t take away any benefit from the student in the long-run. If they go for a masters level or higher degree, and go back into a field where there’s a job produced, the funds would be available to them at that time.”

Bright Futures is funded through lottery ticket sales, and the program has changed over the years — with awards becoming harder to obtain. There is currently no House companion bill, though Speaker Chris Sprowls has suggested he agrees with Simpson and Baxley. The measure is also being watched by House Democrats like minority co-leader Evan Jenne. He says punishing students for pursuing arts majors instead of science and tech-based ones, is a bad idea with good intentions.

“To walk away from the fine arts and the social sciences as they are, is a really bad move. I understand the want and the need and we should be doing everything we can to get our best and brightest involved in STEM [but] this is picking winners and losers and saying your dream and future occupation is worth less than others.”

Jenne suggests the state consider programs like grants and scholarships to lure more students into high demand fields.

Under the revised version of the bill, the state and schools will create a list of programs that do not lead to jobs, and state university system governing board would create a dashboard that shows salary and debt information for graduates based on major. Schools would also have to do a better job of helping students with career planning. Baxley says he’s trying to get higher education to be more responsive to workforce needs.

"We’re trying to push the world of the economy and the education world closer together so people can ladder back-and-forth. So this is going to re-arrange some of the priorities," he told members of the Senate's Education meeting during Tuesday's bill hearing.

“I think it’s a great idea to haver a dashboard…but I think its wrong to use that information to deem a segment of majors unnecessary," said Chase McLaughlin, a Florida State University student and Bright Futures recipient.

Students who decide to go forward with majors the state has decided don’t lead to employment would see a reduction in their Bright Futures Scholarship. Students with awards prior to the bill’s enactment would be grandfathered in, and as the list of programs changes each year, the funding level students receive would be based on the list as it existed when students first qualified for funding. Right now, the state funds scholarships at either 100% or 75% of tuition. Baxley’s bill would make that funding contingent upon legislative appropriations, which could change each year.
Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

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