The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has revived a probe into Florida's Bright Futures scholarship program, which critics charge is increasingly out of reach for the students who need it most.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education confirmed the investigation to FOX 13 on Monday afternoon via email.
According to that statement, "The Office for Civil Rights is investigating allegations that the state of Florida utilizes criteria for determining eligibility for college scholarships that have the effect of discriminating against Latino and African-American students on the basis of national origin and race, in particular with regard to its Bright Futures Scholarship Program, which uses SAT- I and ACT cut-off scores to determine eligibility."
The popular program has awarded more than $4 billion in scholarships, and an outsized share of those have gone to white or affluent families. Some of those recipients are from families that were wealthy enough to pay for college without any help.
In recent years, state lawmakers have raised the standards to obtain a Bright Futures scholarship, increasing the minimum SAT and ACT scores to levels that critics complain will further exclude poor and minority students.
Those changes appear to have restarted the probe, which many thought defunct.
State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said the program is unbiased and based on the merit of individual students.
"Bright Futures, from its inception, has always been race, gender and creed blind," the chair of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee said. "Whoever reaches the highest GPA and SAT scores receives the scholarship."
A University of South Florida analysis last spring predicted the new Bright Futures standards would result in a big decline in the number of college freshmen getting scholarships at state universities -- from 30,954 to 15,711. The analysis also predicted significant drops for minority students: Hispanic students were projected to see a 60 percent decline in scholarships, and black recipients would plummet by more than 75 percent.
A complete accounting will not be available until college freshmen enroll this fall. The base-level scholarship is about $2,300 a year for a full-time student. A more selective "Academic Scholars" level pays about $3,100.
Decades of research show that for a variety of reasons poor and minority students have lower average scores on college admissions exams. One key factor is that students from affluent families can afford to take SAT prep courses to help boost their scores.
"Well, it's an argument minority educators have been making for a very long time-- that testing isn't really the best way of capturing how well someone will do in a university," said USF political science professor Dr. Susan MacManus. "This whole debate goes back to the question of whether scholarships or government money should be based on need or based on merit."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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