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

Republican Leaders Back Changes To Bright Futures Scholarship Program

Florida has waived testing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Florida has waived testing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Said Senate President Wilton Simpson: “We’re saying that we’d prefer the degree you’re getting leads to a job, and I think that’s fair."

A plan steering bright futures scholarship money to students who enter in-demand degree fields is getting endorsements from Florida House and Senate leaders. The bill limits funding from going to students who decide against majors the state deems critical for its workforce.

After years of trying to incentivize more schools to invest in science and technology-based majors, the state is now looking to do the same with students—this time through the Bright Futures program, which rewards high-performing seniors with scholarships for higher education. The majors would be decided by the Florida Board of Governors, which has been tracking which programs yield higher salaries and employment opportunities and match Florida’s workforce needs.

“We’re saying that we’d prefer the degree you’re getting leads to a job, and I think that’s fair. If it’s taxpayer money paying for your education, then the taxpayer should have the opportunity to look at what degree is being gotten and which lead to jobs," said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

He believes Florida needs to target who gets additional financial aid. Senate Bill 86 by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, would provide Bright Futures money to eligible students for their first two years of higher education. After that, additional funding would be contingent upon which major they choose.

Florida lawmakers have tinkered with Bright Futures eligibility for years. It’s funded through lottery ticket sales, but in times of high demand and state financial constraints, the legislature has changed the rules, often making it harder for students to get the scholarship. Simpson says it’s no different this time around. Though he also believes the scholarship name is a bit of a misnomer.

“When you tell folks that are entering college and university system ‘you’re going to have a bright future’—we’re lying to them in some cases. Because a lot of the degrees don’t lead to jobs that will create that bright future. It’s misleading.”

Also backing the proposed changes is House Speaker Chris Sprowls who recently told reporters the state needs to focus on its workforce priorities, and that it’s up to students to choose their majors carefully.

“We have to rethink how we subsidize every degree to the same degree," he said.

Not all programs lead to the same outcomes, and for Sprowls, that deserves some differentiation. He uses the state’s nursing shortage as an example.

“If two 18-year-olds enter higher education at the same time, if one wants to study 16th century French poetry, that’s awesome. But if I have an individual who wants to become a nurse, I really need them to become a nurse. As a Floridian…as a taxpayer…as someone who might be in the hospital, I really need them to become a nurse… the individual becoming a nurse? Maybe they should receive more because they’re someone we need now in the state of Florida. That’s the point.”

Higher education isn't all about meeting the needs of a state, says Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee. He believes its about the development of the individual, and that such a change would hurt low-income students.

“Many policymakers and lawmakers want to change the game in the middle of the game. And that has a devastating impact on communities that have less resources, less access to educational opportunities," said Alexander.

Past revamps of Bright Futures have led to fewer minority students earning the scholarship. Alexander says that participation could be further reduced under the proposed changes. He’s also concerned the proposal gives kids fewer options for their futures, not more.

“There’s no one-size approach to developing a person. We want to make sure if you meet certain academic credentials, and you want to break down generational cycles, I think, if anything, we should be opening Bright Futures more, and having more of a socio-economic component to it.”

Bright Futures is not based on need, though there’ve been efforts trying to change that in the past. House and Senate leadership endorsements could give the bill a boost and put it on a fast-track to approval.

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