Will Bright Futures scholarships promote readiness for the 21st century economy?

With the return of Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship program to the state’s policy spotlight, policy-makers, educators and parents should ponder this simple statement of college readiness:

Every college-bound student should be prepared to choose any major.

How could any parent, any educator, or any policy-maker disagree with such a statement?  Isn’t this what we want for our kids?

Yet too many Florida students head to college having already cut themselves off from the most lucrative college majors – those in engineering, computer science, mathematics and physics.  The prescription for readiness for those majors is straightforward:  chemistry, physics, and calculus (or at least precalculus).  That’s the recommendation – or even the plea – of the American Society for Engineering Education.  And those are subjects that students will have to deal with in college if they are preparing for careers in medicine or computer science.

If there is one policy lever in Florida that could drive more students to take courses in chemistry, physics and upper level math in high school, it’s the Bright Futures scholarship.  Incoming Senate President Joe Negron wants to increase funding for the program to make the top level scholarship equal to tuition at the state’s public universities – as was the case when the program was created and prior to budget cuts in the last decade.

While President Negron is working to increase the Bright Futures award amount, he should also be adjusting eligibility requirements for the scholarship.  At present, the only high school courses in math and science that a student must take to be eligible for the scholarship are those required for graduation – Algebra 1, Geometry, Biology 1 and a few other math and sciences courses chosen to check off the boxes.

My own university, at least, is still only paying lip service to the idea that students should be better prepared for STEM majors.  I run into too many undergraduates whose highest high school math course is Algebra 2.  No wonder College Algebra is such a barrier to so many students!  And half of our pre-health students – and a quarter of engineering majors – did not take a physics course in high school.  Such students are at high risk of flunking out of their majors.

There would be significant resistance to the idea of including chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) in the requirements for Bright Futures.  After all, policy-makers, educators and parents graduated from college in a different era – one in which any college degree (and often just a high school degree) was sufficient to provide access to middle class jobs.  But the world has changed a great deal in the last few decades.  Our kids are facing a much more open and competitive world.  We have a responsibility to push our kids (yes, push them) to do what’s necessary to prepare for this new world.

The Florida Legislature should help us do this by requiring chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) for Bright Futures scholarship eligibility.

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