Thank you to Rory Renzy, former Florida Policy Institute intern, for contributing to research for this blog.
During the Senate Education Committee meeting on January 12, 2021, the Department of Education presented information about Florida’s higher education financial aid programs, including the Bright Futures program. When Senator Shevrin Jones, the committee’s vice chair, asked the presenter for data regarding the racial and ethnic makeup of grant recipients, the department’s response was disappointing, if not unpredictable. Only 6 percent of Bright Futures disbursements in the 2019-2020 school year were to Black students, while 56 percent went to white students and 26 percent to Hispanic students. In fact, in its 23-year history, the share of Bright Futures grants going to Black students has never exceeded 7 percent. Conversely, over that same period, the share of Black and Hispanic high school graduates in Florida has grown — the class of 2020 was 21 percent Black and 32 percent Hispanic. (See Figure 1.)
In recent years, Florida has spent over $500 million annually on Bright Futures grant aid to Florida students — funded by state lottery proceeds — without regard to student financial need. In fact, Bright Futures is the largest state financial aid grant program in the country that is solely merit-based.
Florida’s financial aid grants, which are mostly “merit” based and hinge on SAT/ACT scores, go to a disproportionate share of white students. Most states invest a greater share of their aid in students with financial need. Nationally, states deliver on average 64 percent of their financial aid grants based on student financial need and only 23 percent based on merit. Conversely, Florida spends only 29 percent of financial aid dollars on financial need-based grants and 57 percent on merit-based grants. (See Figure 2.) The result is that beneficiaries of financial aid in Florida are disproportionately white and many would be able to afford college and attain degrees without the state’s financial assistance. Notably, the U.S. Department of Education even investigated the program to determine if it discriminated against Black and Latino students. (They found it had disparate impact but could not prove discriminatory intent.)
The disparate impact of the state’s primary financial aid program should drive all Floridians to ask, “what is the goal of Bright Futures?” Is the purpose to reduce barriers to higher education? To keep high performers in-state? The evidence of the effectiveness of merit-based aid on the latter is murky at best, whereas research shows that a leading reason why students drop out of college is lack of adequate financial aid. During the pandemic, low-income students are increasingly dropping out of college because of fiscal pressures and a lack of high-speed home internet.
One proposal for improved equity for the Bright Futures program would allow for a sliding scale for eligibility, incorporating both SAT/ACT and GPA, rather than a hard-and-fast threshold for the standardized test score. This would allow for students to qualify for Bright Futures who have high GPAs but do not have resources for extensive standardized test preparation. There has also been pressure to move away from using SAT/ACT scores as a driving force in college admission across the country, which has accelerated due to pandemic disruptions. Over 1,600 colleges and universities have said that their fall 2021 admission decisions will not hinge on the SAT/ACT, including Harvard and Cornell, while other colleges, including Princeton and Amherst, have made the SAT/ACT optional moving forward. Several Florida higher education institutions have joined this list, including selective schools like Rollins College, Eckerd College, Stetson University, University of Tampa, and University of Miami. The Bright Futures program could follow suit and move away from requiring SAT/ACT scores.
However, seniors graduating this spring will face an even greater hurdle regarding these standardized tests: lawmakers increased the minimum SAT score needed to qualify for Bright Futures’ Florida Academic Scholars (100 percent of tuition and fees covered) from 1290 to 1330. To receive the Florida Medallion Scholarship, which covers 75 percent of tuition and fees, a student’s SAT score must be 1200 starting in 2021, up from 1170 the previous year. According to lawmakers, the change was spurred by the fact that the College Board, who administers the SAT, changed scoring requirements in the past few years. However, the increase in the SAT score requirement will only serve to exacerbate the racial and ethnic disparity already apparent within the Bright Futures program.
Black and Latino students will be disproportionately hurt by the double whammy of the increase in SAT score requirement for Bright Futures, and the decision to continue to require the test scores in the height of a pandemic despite dozens of Florida universities dropping the standardized tests as a barrier for entry in 2021.
Calls for a reexamination of the goals, purpose, and impact of Bright Futures have continued through the program’s 23-year history. Florida lawmakers should consider rebalancing the types of grants and scholarships it invests in and reevaluate if SAT/ACT test scores should be a barrier to affording higher education in Florida, when many colleges are dropping test scores as mandatory acceptance criteria.
By investing more in need-based financial aid, lawmakers would open the door to higher education for more students of color and students with low income and build a more equitable Florida.
 FPI only uses the term Hispanic when citing specific data or directly quoting a source. FPI uses Latino or the gender-neutral term Latinx to refer to people of Latin American descent.