More Florida students are taking advantage of beefed-up scholarship programs that help pay for tuition, fees and books at state universities and colleges.
The number of students using Bright Futures scholarships, the state’s main merit-based aid program, is now projected to grow by 5.7 percent this academic year for a total of 99,483 students, according to a report published by the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research. The report is based on a Nov. 30 estimating conference.
More students who have top test scores and grades are qualifying for and using the Bright Futures’ “academic scholars” program, which pays for 100 percent of tuition and fees and provides $300 for books in the fall and spring semesters.
The latest estimate shows a projected 52,179 students will qualify this year as academic scholars, up from 45,295 last year, or a 15 percent increase. That program will grow by another 9.5 percent next budget year for a total of 57,138 students in 2019-2020, the estimate showed.
To qualify for the program, students must have a 3.5 grade point average and score at least a 1290 on the SAT or a 29 on the ACT. They must also complete 100 hours of community service.
The report said the reason for the increase in the Bright Future scholars “cannot be fully explained at this time,” although factors may include more students qualifying through programs like the International Baccalaureate program, changes in qualifications for home-schooled students and higher SAT scores.
Former Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who left office last month, made a priority of expanding Bright Futures, including covering 100 percent of tuition and fees in the academic scholars program.
Participation by students qualifying as Bright Futures “medallion scholars,” who must meet slightly lower standards, will remain relatively flat this year, dropping to 46,216 students from 47,740 last year. However, the program for the first time this year will cover 75 percent of tuition and fees for those students.
Both programs allow Bright Futures students to use their scholarships to cover summer classes.
Bright Futures also includes three smaller scholarship programs, along with the academic and medallion programs.
The popularity of Bright Futures may have an impact on the state budget, with the latest projection showing a total cost of $545 million this year, although lawmakers only approved $520 million in the budget and related legislation. The cost is projected to rise to $583 million in 2019-2020.
Meanwhile, the new estimate showed more than 195,000 students will benefit from the state’s largest need-based aid program, known as “student assistance grants.” The average award this year is projected at $1,378.
About 87 percent of that aid will benefit students attending public universities and colleges, but the remainder will help students at private schools and other post-secondary programs.
Also, more than 39,000 state residents attending private colleges and universities in Florida will benefit from the “Effective Access to Student Education” grants program —- which in the past was known as the Florida Resident Access Grant program. The maximum award for those scholarships, which total $137 million, increased from $3,300 to $3,500 this academic year.
Stay on top of Orlando news and views. Sign up for our weekly Headlines newsletter.