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The Fate Of Florida's Bright Futures, For-Profit Colleges, And Ransomware Attack On Schools

Two students walk on the sidewalk wearing uniforms and backpacks.
Miami Herald
When lawmakers slashed Florida's Bright Futures scholarship during difficult budget cycles in the past, Black and Latino students lost out the most.

The uncertain future of the Bright Futures program and an investigation into how for-profit colleges are putting Florida students into debt. Plus, the University of Miami and Broward Schools have been victims of cyber attacks — we discussed how to protect that information from hackers.

On this Tuesday, April 6, episode of Sundial:

The Fate Of Bright Futures

Florida lawmakers have backed down from a controversial plan to reduce Bright Futures scholarships for students whose majors don’t “directly lead to employment.” But, that doesn’t mean the scholarship is safe from pandemic-induced budget cuts.

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Florida has a history of increasing the requirements to receive Bright Futures when there’s a budget shortfall — impacting Black and Latino students the most.

“Lawmakers will say that this has nothing to do with race. But the data is the data. When the changes that the Legislature put into place after the Great Recession took full force for the class of 2014 and in 2016, the Sun Sentinel reported that it disproportionately impacted Black and Latino students. The number of Black students who qualified dropped by three quarters, and the number of Hispanic students dropped by two thirds,” said Jessica Bakeman, WLRN’s education reporter.

Bakeman was also the the editor and project manager of the Class of COVID-19 series, which looked into how the pandemic has impacted Florida’s most vulnerable students.

You can read more of her reporting on this topic here.

The Fate Of Bright Futures

For-Profit Colleges

For-profit colleges have long been operating in Florida. These institutions can offer their own loans, often at high interest rates, and can hold that debt over the student and even withhold diplomas and certifications.

“You often see for-profit colleges get this boost of enrollment during an economic downturn that happened in 2008. Obviously, we're seeing a lot of economic issues across the country right now with COVID-19 and we are seeing for-profit enrollment start to go up again,” said Sarah Butrymowicz, senior editor for investigations at The Hechinger Report.

An investigation by The Hechinger Report, in partnership with The New York Times, found that these institutions continue to operate with little oversight.

“Even if you do graduate and you do get a job, you're still sitting with all this debt. These loans are totally below the radar screen. They [for-profit colleges] can make them pay them back immediately. Federal loans, you can wait six months after graduation to begin even paying, with an interest rate of 2.5 percent. But the interest rates from for-profit colleges can go up to 19 percent,” said Meredith Kolodner, a senior investigative reporter with The Hechinger Report.

There are 45 for-profit colleges across the state of Florida — places like Full Sail University, Florida National University and Florida Career College.

For-Profit Colleges

Ransomware Attack On Schools

Recently the University of Miami and the Broward County Schools systems were hacked, threatening the personal information of medical patients, students, and teachers.

Hackers use ransomware to hack in and then obtain personal information in exchange for cash — in the case of Broward schools, they demanded $40 million to release back that information.

“It’s not done to steal information, it's normally done to get financial resources from the organization that gets attacked. A ransomware attack normally encrypts your computer system ... what ends up happening is you have your entire network encrypted. It essentially means you have no access to it and you don't have any access to your data or your systems, and you need to pay a ransom to get it,” said Jorge Ortega, director of Miami Dade College’s Cybersecurity School of the Americas.

Sundial reached out to the University of Miami and Broward County Public Schools. Here are the statements we received:

The University of Miami is currently investigating a data security incident involving Accellion, a third-party provider of hosted file transfer services. We take data security seriously and data protection is a top priority.

As soon as we became aware of the incident, we took immediate action to investigate and contain it, including immediately disabling the Accellion server used for secure file transfers. We also retained leading cybersecurity experts to assist with our investigation. We have reported the incident to law enforcement and are cooperating with their investigation.

We understand that the Accellion security incident affected multiple federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government organizations, as well as private industry organizations and businesses including those in the medical, legal, telecommunications, finance, higher education, retail, and energy sectors.

Our investigation into this incident is ongoing and we are continuing to analyze data files within the Accellion server used for secure file transfers and to identify individuals whose personal information was potentially affected. Although that analysis is ongoing, we have begun notifying affected individuals by postal mail under applicable laws.

Based on our investigation to date, the incident was limited to the Accellion server used for secure file transfers and did not compromise other University of Miami systems or affect outside systems linked to the University of Miami’s network. However, we continue to enhance our cybersecurity program to further safeguard our systems from cyber threats. We continue to serve our University community consistent with our commitment to education, research, innovation, and service.

Below is the statement from Broward County Public Schools, issued March 12:

Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) recently detected a service disruption that impacted the availability of certain systems within the BCPS computer network. Upon learning of this incident, BCPS secured its network and commenced an internal investigation. A cyber security firm was engaged to assist. BCPS is approaching this incident with the utmost seriousness and is focused on securely restoring the affected systems as soon as possible, as well as enhancing the security of its systems.

This updated statement was released March 31, in response to additional inquiries:

Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) is committed to protecting the data on its systems. Unfortunately, all organizations face increasingly sophisticated and malicious threats to cybersecurity. To help further protect against these types of incidents, the District has taken steps to enhance the security of its systems, including additional administrative, technical and physical safeguards.

BCPS is continuing to work with cybersecurity experts to investigate the incident and remediate affected systems. Efforts to restore all systems are underway and progressing well. We have no intention of paying a ransom.

At this point in the investigation, we are not aware of any student or employee personal data that has been compromised as a result of this incident. If the investigation uncovers any compromised personal data, the District will provide appropriate notification to those affected.

No additional information is being shared to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

Ransomware Attack On Schools
FBI Director James Comey walks up to speak on cybersecurity in August. His decision to release a letter noting he's looking into more Clinton emails has rocked the presidential election.

Suria is Sundial's fall 2020 high school intern and a production assistant.
Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.