As Florida students return to universities and state colleges this month for a new academic year, many will benefit from a major expansion of need-based financial aid.
Florida's main program aimed at students with financial need, known as “student assistance grants,” will expand to cover a record 234,824 students in the 2017-18 academic year, an increase of 112,495 students from last year, according to an estimate approved Wednesday by state analysts.
The 92 percent increase in eligible students is a result of the Legislature this year providing an additional $121 million for the program, for a total of $269.4 million in the new school year.
The students will receive an average grant of $1,147, with a maximum award up to $2,610. The money does not have to be repaid.
Last year, a little more than 122,000 students received the grants, but there were an estimated 107,449 who were eligible but did not receive the financial support because of a lack of funding, according to the Florida Department of Education.
The program expansion, which became law when Gov. Rick Scott signed an $82 billion budget that took effect July 1, is projected to cover all eligible students this year. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, spearheaded efforts to expand aid as part of a broader effort to revamp the higher-education system.
About 204,000 state university and college students will receive the assistance grants this year, along with 18,000 students in private universities and colleges. Another 13,000 students will use the grants in other post-secondary programs, including career education.
In merit-based aid, the new projections show 46,570 university and college students who qualify as “academic scholars” under Florida's Bright Futures program will have all of their tuition and fees covered in 2017-18 and will receive $300 a semester for books.
The full scholarships will cover 44,456 university students and 2,114 state college students, the projection shows.
Last year, the top Bright Futures scholarship only covered about half of the tuition and fees, which average about $215 per credit hour at the 12 state universities.
Lawmakers this year expanded the scholarships to cover full tuition and expanded the top-level scholarships to summer classes.
About 16,600 Bright Futures scholars are expected to attend summer classes this year, averaging 11 credit hours at a cost of $39 million.
Overall, the cost of the expanded Bright Futures program will rise to $402 million this year, up from $204 million last year, the projection shows. It also includes funding for 47,491 Bright Futures “medallion scholars,” who receive aid covering $77 of each credit hour per semester.
The Legislature also expanded the “Florida Resident Access Grant” program, which will provide $3,300 a year to 37,324 students attending private colleges and universities in Florida in 2017-18.
That projection includes 6,536 Keiser University students, 2,552 University of Miami students, 2,334 St. Leo University students and 1,833 Bethune-Cookman University students receiving grants from the $123 million program.
The Benacquisto scholarship program, which covers full tuition, housing and other costs for National Merit Scholars, is expected to cover 873 students this year, up from 665 last year. The program will cost an estimated $13.2 million this year.
The projections were made by what is known as the “financial aid estimating conference,” which includes analysts from the House, Senate, governor's office, the Department of Education and the Office of Economic & Demographic Research.