Florida has routinely offered too little financial aid to its college students. So Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is to be applauded for introducing a bill making about $77 million more in scholarships available. The issue, though, is that the legislation focuses on Bright Futures and the state university system when need-based scholarships and the community college system could use the help even more.
Under Galvano's bill, Bright Futures Academic Scholarships would provide 100 percent of tuition and fees to students with a weighted GPA of 3.5, a 1,290 on the SAT and 100 service hours. A second-tier Medallion Scholarship would give 75 percent of tuition and fees but require only a 3.0 weighted GPA, an 1,170 SAT and 75 service hours.
Compare those numbers to freshmen admitted for the fall term at the University of Florida, who averaged a 4.4 GPA and a 1,349 SAT. See the problem? Stats that garner the top-tier Bright Futures award aren't even average for a UF applicant. And more than half of the students who start at the University of Florida already graduate with no student debt.
Meantime, in an historically stingy state like Florida, there is seldom enough money to go around. Giving more money to Bright Futures inevitably will mean shortchanging need-based aid of what it needs, even if that pool is expanded.
Academic scholarships are a wonderful tool if they are dialed in correctly, and Galvano's bill has some solid ideas. It would attract out-of-state National Merit Scholars by expanding the Benacquisto Scholarship to include their full cost of attendance, as it already does for in-state students. That sets an appropriately high bar and seeks a talent pool the state should be recruiting.
The bill also would assist first-generation college students attending community college by doubling the state contribution for private donations to the First Generation Matching Grant Program. Those are all good ideas. And a proposal to base tuition on a flat rate per semester rather a cost per credit hour is also worth considering.
However, because of Gov. Rick Scott's veto of a sweeping higher education bill this summer, this new bill deals mostly with the university system, not the state college system. In his message at the time, Scott called on the Legislature "to pass legislation that revisits these issues and expands Bright Futures scholarships permanently while recognizing the importance of both our state colleges and universities."
Bright Futures is an immensely popular program, particularly with middle-class parents, and permanently restoring the full funding instead of a proportion of tuition would only add to its appeal. In providing all or 75 percent of tuition and fees for the winners in its two tiers, it would help about 94,000 students.
But an achievement-based scholarship needs to have standards high enough to attract the top students the state wants to keep and not just be a middle-class entitlement for the solid but not stellar student. Conversely, need-based scholarships need to be expanded to make a college or university education possible for the striving student who could not otherwise afford it. It's great that Senate leadership is thinking hard about college affordability. Now senators just need to get the focus right.