By LLOYD DUNKELBERGER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
The state university system’s Board of Governors this week will debate expanding the Bright Futures scholarship program to cover summer classes.
The proposal, which could cost up to $46.7 million, is a top priority for Gov. Rick Scott, who sees broader use of the merit scholarship program as a way to help students graduate in four years from state universities.
“I am also once again proposing to expand the Bright Futures scholarship to cover summer classes, and I am challenging every university and college president to urge the Legislature to pass this during the next legislative session,” Scott said during a higher-education summit in May.
Scott has been pushing the proposal since 2015 but has not won support in the Legislature.
The Board of Governors, which is meeting this week at New College of Florida in Sarasota, will review a report that says allowing students to use Bright Futures scholarships in the summer will provide them “with an opportunity to decrease their time-to-degree and enter into the state’s workforce more rapidly.”
The report also says a broader use of the scholarships will help reduce student debt and allow “more efficient classroom utilization” across the 12 state universities.
Data through 2015 from the Board of Governors shows only 44 percent of students graduated in four years at 11 state universities, ranging from a high of 67.3 percent at the University of Florida to a low of 13.4 percent at Florida A&M University. The survey did not include the newly created Florida Polytechnic University.
Florida universities had a 66 percent six-year graduation rate, another metric used to measure performance. The Board of Governors has set a goal of raising the system-wide four-year rate to 50 percent by 2025 and the six-year rate to 70 percent.
The idea behind expanding Bright Futures is that it will provide a financial incentive for more students to attend summer classes, increasing the chances they can graduate more quickly.
Currently, many Bright Futures students shun the summer classes since their scholarships don’t cover the costs.
In 2015, a little more than half of the Bright Futures students enrolled in the spring semester also enrolled in the summer, dropping from 90,518 students to 46,033, the report showed.
Expanding the scholarships could nearly double the number of summer Bright Futures students to 85,587, assuming each student averaged 6.3 credit hours in the summer, based on the highest estimate by analysts for the Board of Governors. That expansion cost was estimated at $46.7 million.
The lowest estimate was $25.9 million, assuming roughly the same number of Bright Futures students, 48,000, would attend summer classes but would be reimbursed under the proposal.
Funding for the summer expansion would have to compete against other proposals during the 2017 legislative session, including incoming Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to have Bright Futures cover the entire tuition cost for top scholarship students, known as “academic scholars.” That proposal would more than double the current $106 million cost for those 41,000 students.
And the plans to expand Bright Futures come against overall financial projections showing a meager $7.5 million surplus is anticipated for next budget year, which begins July 1
But part of the argument that could bolster the moves to expand Bright Futures is that the scholarship program, which is funded by the Florida Lottery, has dramatically dropped in cost and scope over the years.
The $212 million scholarship program, which covers some 102,000 students, is down from its $429 million peak in 2008-09 and down from its 179,000-student peak in 2010-11. The drop-off was caused, in part, by an increase in eligibility requirements, including higher test scores, and a cap on the scholarships themselves.