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Questions About Equity Persist As a Proposed Boost in Bright Futures Aims to Help Top Grads

Sometimes, as Kareem Elgendi stared down a tough SAT question, a tendril of anxiety wound its way into his head.

If I don’t get the score I need, will I be able to pay for college?

He had lugged home SAT books his sophomore year at Blake High School, already practicing, hoping to win Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship.

With a score of 1290, he would qualify for Bright Futures’ top tier, securing about $3,090 a year — a big dent in the $6,000 tuition and fees that Florida’s public universities charge on average. He took the SAT once, twice, three times, with mounting fear.

Finally getting that score, he said, “was the best feeling ever.”

The scholarship helped him avoid student loans. But he still spent his freshman year at the University of South Florida living at home and working as a valet to save money. His parents still chipped in for textbooks.

This year, as the Bright Futures program turns 20, lawmakers want to sweeten the deal for Elgendi and more than 40,000 high achievers like him. If Gov. Rick Scott signs the legislation, top scholars would receive 100 percent of tuition at a Florida university, plus most fees. And for the first time, the scholarship would pay for their summer classes.

It’s a generous boost that would restore much of the luster Bright Futures lost during recession-era cutbacks.

But it also renews a debate that has swirled around the program from its beginnings: How much should Florida spend on subsidizing college for its residents? And who among them should benefit the most?