Florida lawmakers tell college students to pay up

As the school year begins, many students are noticing changes to their financial aid and tuition that are the result of decisions lawmakers in Tallahassee have made over the past year.  Among such changes are increases to tuition by 15 percent, as well as a 20 percent reduction for Bright Futures scholarships. Initially, there was little public resistance to these changes, but now that classes are upon them students are looking at their bills with greater ire than last year.

Bright Futures is a state scholarship program that helps pay for university tuition at a state school for the highest-performing high school students in Florida. As the number of students participating in the program has ballooned, the cost of funding the program has also grown since it began, with total disbursements growing from $69.5 million in 1997 to $423.5 million in 2010, though funds for the program come out of Florida lottery revenues.

While proponents of the program point to the increasing number of qualifying students as a sign of the program’s success, detractors in the legislature saw the program as an opportunity for balancing the budget in light of Governor Rick Scott’s push for government austerity, as well as a way to free up funding for other educational programs.

Some are questioning whether Bright Futures money is going to the right students. “I think the program sends too much money to families that could afford to pay more,” President Gordon “Mike” Michalson said of the program. “This seems problematic to me, if all parties admit that – state-wide – there is a lot of unmet financial need among students who don’t qualify for Bright Futures.”

In 2010, Bright Futures benefits were reduced from 100 percent of tuition to a flat rate per credit hour. In the 2011 legislative session, the Florida Legislature decided to reduce benefits to the program again, this time by 20 percent. While the changes in 2010 only applied to those who would enter college in the fall, the 2011 changes include those who have already earned the scholarship money.

Changes to the program included a requirement to fill out a FAFSA form before a student can receive benefits. While the declared reason for this was to spur more needy students to apply for Federal Aid, Director of Financial Aid Tara Karas said that she believes it’s a push toward making the program more need-based. Bright Futures reforms also included new eligibility requirements for future recipients in the form of higher SAT scores and community service.

Another decision that will affect students’ wallets was made by the Board of Governors of the state university system. The board voted for a seven percent tuition increase on top of an earlier eight percent increase approved by the legislature.

Chairman of the Budget Committee Tico Perez characterized the decision as “a necessary evil” with the goal being “to provide the best education possible.”

The move to increase tuition is part of push to bring in-state tuition closer to the national average. Currently, Florida is ranked 48th for tuition. If the national average of tuition increased at the current rate, it would take ten years of 15 percent increases for Florida to go from 48th to 25th.

While the vote to increase tuition was almost unanimous, the student representative to the Board of Governors, New College Student Alliance (NCSA) Co-president Michael Long voted against the increase for Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of North Florida in recognition of those student presidents who opposed the tuition hikes.

Even so, Long voted for tuition increases at all other schools, including New College, saying it was “an absolute necessity” in light of “the continuing trend of reductions in funding for higher education.” But despite the changes to tuition, the increase will only offset a fraction of the budget cuts.

Federal Aid to undergraduate students saw cuts, too. Among the federal programs eliminated are the Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG) and the National SMART Grant. Pell Grants were able to survive Federal austerity measures through a legislative deal that eliminate subsidized loans for graduate students.
The recent changes are sure to have financially painful consequences for Florida’s college students.  Karas noted that “students have been impacted more than in years past.” However, even though there is more financial hardship, significant cuts have prevented Financial Aid from doling out more money, and that means students are going to have to make up the difference out of their own pocket.

“As a student from a low-middle income background, the rise in tuition has just made it increasingly more difficult for many of us to complete even the basic four-year degree,” Third year student Diana Watson opined of the changes.  Second year student Jared O’Connor claimed he lost more than $6,000 in aid. “This forced me to move off campus, work multiple jobs all the while balancing a large class load,” O’Connor said. “The cuts have caused a lot of anxiety for me as a student.”

With little current opposition to these decisions that affect students’ wallets, and because decisions are made by those who show up, it will be up to students to fight for funding their own education. Co-president Long proposed just that when he said that as students “we need to stand up and act; we need to say something.”

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