How to fix Bright Futures: Require recipients to be ready for science, engineering and health careers

With the State of Florida facing a $3.5 billion budget shortfall, legislators are considering a new $100 million cut to the popular Bright Futures scholarship program on top of the money-saving reforms implemented during last year’s legislative session.  Despite the gloom surrounding the budget situation, the Bright Futures crisis provides an excellent opportunity to improve how our state’s high schools prepare their students for careers in the science, engineering and health professions.

Even while the Florida Legislature is mulling over new cuts to the Bright Futures program, the state’s business community is calling for the state’s colleges and universities to graduate more students with degrees in the science, engineering and health professions (often referred to as “STEM” for “science, technology, engineering and math”).  The report “Closing the Talent Gap” released by the Florida Council of 100 and the Florida Chamber of Commerce in January, 2010 said that by 2015 the state will need “at least 100,000 more science and technology professionals than we are on track to produce.”  However, research demonstrates that the success a student has in earning a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field depends strongly on the math and science courses the student took while in high school.  A group from the University of South Florida published a study in 2007 showing that taking physics and higher level math courses such as precalculus and calculus dramatically improves the chance a student has for succeeding in a rigorous undergraduate program in a STEM field.  In fact, the USF study also showed that taking higher level math and science courses is even more beneficial for minority students than it is for white students.

The primary money-saving strategy for Bright Futures adopted by last year’s Florida Legislature was to raise the SAT and ACT test scores required for scholarship eligibility.  However, this strategy disproportionately impacts students from low income families – the very students that need the most help.

Instead of raising required test scores further, the Legislature should use the Bright Futures program to address the business community’s need for more STEM professionals by requiring higher level science and math courses in high school for program eligibility.  Requiring precalculus and a full program of science courses including biology, chemistry and physics for Bright Futures eligibility would provide a strong incentive for students to more fully prepare for the fields with the most promising economics prospects.  Furthermore, it would avoid the hazards of relying on standardized test scores.  Students would earn Bright Futures scholarships on the basis of their work in the classroom instead of on the basis of a test score.

While last year’s Florida Legislature enacted new high school graduation requirements that included Algebra 2 and “chemistry or physics”, these new requirements will still not raise the bar high enough to adequately prepare high school students for undergraduate programs in STEM fields.  Requiring advanced math and science courses for Bright Futures eligibility will ensure that more students arrive at Florida’s postsecondary institutions “STEM-ready”.

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