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Negron sees Bright Futures as key in higher ed plans

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Preparing to make public universities a priority during the next two years, incoming Senate President Joe Negron says more and better scholarships will help take Florida's higher-education system to the next level.

The Stuart Republican has made clear his goal of finding an additional $1 billion for the 12 public universities during his two-year term as president, which is slated to begin after the November elections.

Part of that money would go to increasing need-based and merit-based scholarships. Negron is particularly interested in raising the top award for the merit-based Bright Futures scholarships, which were slashed as a result of the recession.

Negron wants to restore the top tier of Bright Futures, known as the Academic Scholars award, to 100 percent of tuition plus $300 per semester for books. That's what the award covered before the cuts. Now it covers about half the cost of tuition.

"I think people generally understood that during the economic downturn, some reductions in state-government spending had to be made," Negron said. "But now that the economy is recovering, the response I've gotten from students and their parents has been very positive."

Signaling his focus on higher-education, Negron went on a statewide tour of university campuses last month. While on the tour, he said, he met a retired high-school guidance counselor who encouraged his plans.

"He said that when Bright Futures was at the 100 percent level, there was no better incentive in talking to students than letting them know that if they worked hard and succeeded in their academics, they had a Bright Futures scholarship waiting for them," Negron said. "So I'm committed to getting Bright Futures back to where it should be."

The scholarship program has been popular since it began in 1997. Funded by the Florida Lottery, Bright Futures cost roughly $70 million for 42,319 students during the 1997-1998 school year, according to the state Department of Education and the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

That amount shot up to $429 million for 169,366 students by 2008-09, as the recession was gathering steam. Soon, the Legislature cut the value of the scholarships and reduced the number of awards by hiking standards.

For instance, to qualify as an Academic Scholar before 2011, a student would have needed a score of 1270 on the SAT exam or a 28 on the ACT. That went up to 1280 on the SAT in 2012. The following year, it went up to 1290 on the SAT or 29 on the ACT.

Additionally, the number of required service hours went from 75 to 100 during that time. Standards were also hiked for the second tier of Bright Futures, known as the Florida Medallion Scholars.

As a result, fewer students qualified for awards. By the 2014-15 school year, the state spent $257 million on Bright Futures for 128,545 students --- a decrease of 40 percent since 2008-09.

For the 2015-16 school year, the Office of Economic and Demographic Research expects the state to spend $238 million on 112,377 students. For 2016-17, the projection is $217 million for 100,170 students.

Rick Wilder, director of student financial affairs at the University of Florida, said restoring the cuts would help "many, many thousands" of in-state students.

"Certainly, anytime you can increase financial aid for students, particularly when it's scholarship or grant and it keeps them from having to borrow money, that's going to be a big plus," he said.

For 2014-15, the University of Florida had 15,411 Academic Scholars. The University of South Florida had 12,863.

"Bolstering the Bright Futures program would certainly increase the enrollment of our best and brightest from the state of Florida," said David Lee Henry, director of admissions at the University of South Florida.

Negron has no plans to reduce the requirements for the Academic Scholars awards, which include a weighted 3.5 grade-point average.

"I'm content with where the standards are right now," he said.

He is, however, looking to beef up need-based scholarships, including the Florida Student Assistance Grant. Also, he wants to bolster the Florida Resident Access Grant program, which applies to students at private colleges and universities.

"A lot of students struggle with financial insecurity, and as a result, sometimes they take fewer hours than they otherwise would," Negron said. "Or they're working full-time and not able to focus on their studies to the extent they would like, so I think need-based aid is also an important component."