Bright Futures: an out-of-control entitlement program that conservative Republicans created

For probably the first time in my life, I had perfect timing: My column on Florida’s lottery-funded scholarship program (Bright Futures) appeared in the Jacksonville Times-Union newspaper today, the same day the St. Petersburg Times reported on a poll about university tuition, a day after the Tampa Tribune reported on problems with the Bright Futures program and two days after a Palm Beach Post editorial on the subject and the state’s Board of Governors discussed the isssue.

It’s a tough argument to make, especially with students creating Facebook groups to defend the current structure of Bright Futures, but it’s an important point: when Florida tied a merit-based scholarship program to lottery funding in the last decade and promised full funding of college in the program, without any caps to the students involved, … and then has failed to fund all of the students universities have admitted in the past ten years … something had to give. The lottery hasn’t paid for all of the program costs, and so the legislature has had a huge incentive to cap tuition and to fight the Board of Governors when the Board wants to set tuition. The result is that universities cannot admit all the students they would like to. In essence, Bright Futures is no promise if not all students eligible can be admitted to universities, and if it pits the interests of students in getting the cheapest possible degree against the interests of universities in running institutions that are solvent.

In addition, Bright Futures is the vast majority of financial-aid funding in the state, and it goes disproportionately to families who can afford the rock-bottom tuition we have in Florida. The students who really need the help with tuition have a much smaller pool of funds available to them because of Bright Futures. The irony (noted in the title): here’s an entitlement program created by a Republican former governor (Jeb Bush) and conservative leaders of the state legislature, when most of them have probably criticized other entitlement programs. There’s nothing wrong with Republicans (my oldest sister is a Republican officeholder in California), but here’s a case where the political dynamics have led to a clear philosophical inconsistency.

The chancellor of Florida’s university system has the right idea: cap current costs, don’t affect the students who are currently in the universities on Bright Futures, but in future raise eligibility requirements and shift spending over to needs-based financial aid. I don’t know if that’ll fly this year, but something has to bend, or the university system’s integrity will break.

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