By Troy Miller
Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst, Florida College Access Network

A distinct feature of the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program is its two main tiers.  When the program first began in 1997, high school graduates with a 3.0 or higher weighted grade point average and a 970 SAT/20 ACT score qualified for a scholarship equal to 75% of tuition and fees at in-state colleges and universities (called Florida Medallion Scholars).  High school graduates with especially high achievement, a 3.5 grade point average and a 1270 SAT/28 ACT score, earned a scholarship which paid for 100% of tuition and fees, plus a small living stipend at in-state colleges and universities (called Florida Academic Scholars).  The program has since experienced some changes to the initial eligibility criteria and students awarded the scholarship today receive a flat cost per credit hour award, not a percentage of tuition and fees as the program was originally designed.  The 2013 Florida Legislature is expected to take a closer look at Bright Futures to determine how to improve the program. As they begin that process, here’s a question worth asking.  How did the original two scholarship “levels” impact college-going and completion rates?

A new working paper from Harvard doctoral candidate Benjamin Castleman shows offering students the 75% tuition scholarship had no impact on several outcomes including their likelihood of entering college, accumulating credits and earning a degree relative to students who did not earn a scholarship.  The paper did, however, reveal “pronounced” impacts on each of the aforementioned outcomes for students who were eligible for a 100% scholarship, even though the monetary difference between the two scholarships amounts to about $600 per student (in 2000 dollars).  Students who were eligible for the 100% scholarship had completed almost three more courses after four years of college enrollment and were nine percentage points more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years than students earning the 75% scholarship.

The results of the study shows students can respond to monetary incentives in ways that might not be initially apparent or rational and continues the debate on how effective merit-based programs (like Bright Futures) has on promoting college-going and completion for students who might not otherwise go to college.  Castleman points out that while the full tuition scholarship seemed to encourage high achieving students (eligible for Florida Academic Scholars) to stay in-state for college, little evidence appeared to suggest Bright Futures as a whole induced many students to go to college who would not have otherwise attended.  The researcher also notes that students earning the highest scholarship tier were also more likely to be White students and not eligible for free- and reduced-priced lunch.

Studies such as this should help inform the debate around the best use of state aid dollars to help encourage student college-going and completion.  Florida spends almost 75% of its grant aid budget on merit-based programs, which is a lot compared to other states.  California and Texas don’t use any state aid dollars on similar programs and New York only uses 3%.  Why?  Many states have subscribed to targeting financial aid to students who need the money most.  A recent New York Times article showed only 9% of low-income students born in the early 80’s earned a college degree while 54% of more affluent students had, a gap that has been increasing over time.  Last year the percentage of students receiving free- and reduced-priced lunches in Florida reached 56% — 10 points higher than what it was in 2008.  Based on these trends, Florida moving toward a need-based approach only seems appropriate and timely.

~Follow Troy Miller on Twitter @TroyMillerFCAN

Source:  Castleman, B. L. (2012). All or Nothing: The Impact of Partial vs. Full Merit Scholarships on College Entry and Success. Retrieved from

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