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Florida Bright Futures Proposal To See Changes

State Sen. Dennis Baxley gives his Stand Your Ground speech on the floor of the Florida Senate
State Sen. Dennis Baxley gives a speech on the floor of the Florida Senate, in a previous session.

TALLAHASSEE --- Under pressure that has included a student-led opposition campaign, lawmakers are expected to overhaul a controversial Senate proposal that would tie Bright Futures scholarships to a list of job-creating degrees.

The measure (SB 86) was tabled last week before it was set to be considered by the Senate Education Committee. Sponsor Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, told reporters at the time that he was receiving “a lot of different inputs” on the proposal, which he said left him wanting to “hit the brakes.”

Under the bill as it was filed initially, state college and university students would not be eligible for Bright Futures scholarships if they enrolled in degree programs not on lists of “approved” programs. Students who had not chosen degree programs would be eligible to have 60 hours of coursework covered by the popular scholarship program.

But the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday is expected to consider an amendment that would make significant changes to the bill. Under the amendment filed by Baxley, Bright Futures scholarships would be “reduced,” not nixed, for students who don’t choose an academic discipline deemed promising for job prospects.

Baxley sent a letter to members of the committee Monday outlining some of the changes.

“Rather than creating a list of degrees that lead to jobs, the bill creates a list of degrees that DO NOT lead to jobs. Students who select a degree or program of study that the BOG has determined will not lead to a job will receive a reduced (not eliminated) scholarship amount,” Baxley wrote, referring to the state university system’s Board of Governors.

The amended plan would require the Board of Governors, the State Board of Education and the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida to maintain such lists. The change tying Bright Futures eligibility to the lists would go into effect during the 2023-2024 academic year, which is one year later than the original plan proposed. It would also apply to the state’s Benacquisto Scholarship program, which is for National Merit scholars.

The amendment would also require the Board of Governors to develop an online dashboard featuring data on graduates of various fields of study. The dashboard would have to include information such as median salary after graduation, average student loan debt and debt-to-income ratio.

“My hope is that the research will show that all, or most degrees our institutions of higher learning are offering DO lead to jobs. But if there are degrees out there that don’t, I believe we have a moral obligation to let the student know,” Baxley wrote to the committee.

If adopted, Baxley’s amendment would keep some features of the original proposal. One such provision would change the current tiered structure of providing Bright Futures aid at either 75 percent or 100 percent of tuition and fees to tying scholarship levels to the amount appropriated in the state budget.

That part of the bill drew ire from students behind the group Save Bright Futures, which created a website and started a petition in opposition to the Senate measure.

“There’s so much up in the air about how much students are receiving per scholarship. So, even if you are approved, even if you work hard to get the scholarship … they don’t guarantee a certain percentage of your tuition,” Kaylee Duong, an Orlando high school student who is part of the group, told The News Service of Florida in an interview last week.

The amendment modifies part of the original bill that would reduce the amount of credit hours Bright Futures recipients would be eligible for if they earned college credits through an “acceleration mechanism,” like AP or International Baccalaureate classes in high school.

Baxley wrote in his letter to the Senate Education Committee that the provision would remain, but “the amendment further specifies the deduction only if the credit is accepted by the institution and applies to a career program requirements, or to general education courses.”

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has endorsed the bill and told reporters last week that the “theme” of the measure would remain even with changes.

“Our concern is, are there degrees that do not lead to jobs. And so, we’re still going to be looking to scale back the Bright Futures portion of that opportunity if it does not lead to a job,” Simpson said.

Meanwhile, a House version of Baxley’s bill has not been filed.

House Minority Co-Leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, criticized the proposal as “an awful idea,” but told reporters during a media availability Monday “you always have to be prepared for any bill to get traction in the House.”

“I think it’s one that may have a little bit more of a difficult time over here than in the Senate,” Jenne said.

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