An Analysis of Policy Solutions to Improve the Efficiency and Equity of Florida's Bright Futures Scholarship Program

By Mckinney, Lyle | Florida Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

An Analysis of Policy Solutions to Improve the Efficiency and Equity of Florida's Bright Futures Scholarship Program


Mckinney, Lyle, Florida Journal of Educational Administration and Policy


Introduction

Florida lawmakers established the BFS program during the 1997 legislative session "to reward any Florida high school graduate who merits recognition of high academic achievement and who enrolls in an eligible Florida public or private postsecondary education institution within three years of graduation from high school" (Section 240.40201, Florida Statutes). The BFS is the largest financial aid program in Florida and has become one of the largest merit-based scholarship programs in the country. The program uses specific academic eligibility requirements to provide Florida's college students with scholarships at three different funding levels. The primary goals of the BFS at its inception were: 1. to serve as an incentive for high school students to take rigorous courses and perform better academically; 2. to direct lottery dollars to improve postsecondary education in a way that was readily visible to the public; and 3. to improve access to postsecondary education. Since 1997, the BFS has awarded $2.3 billion in financial aid to over one million Florida students (Florida Department of Education, 2008).

While the BFS program's degree of success in achieving the three initial policy goals outlined by Florida legislators continues to be a source of intense debate among policymakers and educational researchers, it is apparent that unintended and undesirable consequences have emerged as a direct result of the policy's implementation. The primary criticism of the BFS is the fact the program allocates the majority of the state's finite financial aid resources to students who would have attended, and could have afforded, college without the scholarship. While a growing number of minority and low-income students in Florida are pursuing higher education since the BFS was introduced, these student groups continue to receive a disproportionately smaller share of the scholarships than White and high-income students. For the 2007-08 academic year, White students (66%) were awarded three times as many scholarships as Black (7%) and Hispanic (15%) students combined (Florida Department of Education, 2008). This disconcerting trend has been evident and consistent since the BFS program's inception.

The deteriorating fiscal health of the BFS and the inequitable distribution of program resources have served as focusing events that will present Florida lawmakers with a policy window for making changes to the BFS program in the near future (Kingdon, 2003). When the future of Bright Futures reaches the forefront of the Florida legislature's agenda, policymakers must be equipped to answer an important question: How can Florida most efficiently and equitably use limited postsecondary financial aid resources to maximize the number of citizens enrolling, and earning a degree, from an in-state college or university? The ability to successfully answer this question has significant implications for the future of Florida higher education and the state's economic welfare. The primary objective of this policy analysis is to provide state policymakers with several viable alternatives to consider when seeking answers to this question.

History of the Bright Futures Scholarship

As the costs associated with attending college have risen dramatically in recent decades, the federal government, state legislatures, and postsecondary institutions have all searched for viable ways to provide financial assistance to students pursuing higher education. A common mechanism used to deliver this support to students has been financial aid programs that award funding based on specified eligibility requirements. Traditionally, these programs have been categorized as either need-based or merit-based (Creech & Davis, 1999). Using financial need and ability to pay as the primary eligibility requirements, federally funded financial aid programs blossomed during the 1960s and 1970s. The introduction of Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 authorized federal financial assistance programs, and for the past four decades Pell Grants have been the primary means through which this federal assistance has been delivered to students with demonstrated financial need (Heller & Rogers, 2006). …

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