Merit-based student aid costs climb

By Lloyd Dunkelberger, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - More than half of the nearly $1 billion that Florida will spend this year on financial aid for students attending state colleges and universities is merit-based.

The state budget includes $537 million for merit-based aid programs, according a report reviewed Thursday by the House Higher Education & Career Readiness Subcommittee. The primary merit aid program is Bright Futures, which is awarded to high school graduates based on grades, standardized test scores and volunteer work.

Lawmakers provided $520 million for the Bright Futures program in this budget year. But the latest estimate from state analysts showed an increase in qualifying students could push the cost to $545 million. It is projected to provide aid to about 99,000 students.

The other major merit-based aid is the Benacquisto scholarship program, which provides full tuition and housing costs for students who qualify as national merit scholars. It will spend about $17 million this year on more than 1,100 students.

Based on the $537 million appropriated for the two programs, Suzanne Pridgeon, a deputy education commissioner, told House members the merit programs represent 55 percent of this year’s $971 million in state financial aid.

Pridgeon said there is also $271 million in need-based financial aid, which is awarded to students from lower-income families. In this year’s budget, it accounts for 28 percent of the total aid expenditures.

The Florida Student Assistance Grant program represents nearly all of that aid, providing an average annual award of $1,378 for more than 195,000 students.

Another $143 million, or 15 percent of the total aid, will go for “tuition assistance” programs, the report showed.

The largest expenditure is more than $137 million for the Effective Access to Student Education program, which provides up to $3,500 in aid to more than 39,000 students attending non-public schools in Florida, like the University of Miami or Bethune-Cookman University. That program formerly was known as the Florida Resident Access Grant program.

The other 2 percent of this year’s financial aid will go for nine programs, including a matching-grant program designed to help first-generation college students, the report showed.

With backing from key lawmakers such as former Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the Legislature has dramatically increased higher-education financial aid programs in recent years.

Lawmakers, for example, expanded top-level Bright Futures awards to cover full tuition and fees, as well as to pay for some textbooks.

And funding for the state’s primary need-based aid program has increased by more than 80 percent since the 2016-2017 academic year, rising by more than $121 million.

News Service of Florida