A Less Bright Future: Florida Is Breaking Its Promise to Students

The way I saw it, Florida made a deal with its students. We would excel in school, and, in return, Florida would support us. I held my half of the bargain, Florida didn't.
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In 1997, Florida's legislature created a scholarship program called Bright Futures. It was a program that allowed high school seniors with high academic merit to earn a scholarship for any public university in the state of Florida. This program would be paid for by the Florida Lottery, and based merit on GPA as well as standardized test scores. Such a scholarship would ensure all young Floridians have the opportunity to go to college. Bright Futures was divided into three types of scholarships, designed for three different types of students. There was one created for those high school seniors' pursuing vocational degrees, one for the "B" students, and another for the "A" students. The "B" students earned a 75% scholarship for university, 100% for community college. The "A" students were granted a 100% scholarship for any public university.

I was one of those "A" students.

Growing up, my parents taught me that the key to success was education. Immigrants from Iran, we had few resources. But I always taught that education was the ultimate equalizer. No matter where you came from, no matter your background; if you had a college degree you could be whoever you wanted to be. That's why my parents worked tirelessly to ensure my father got his degree from the University of Central Florida (UCF), the school I proudly call my own today. I can still remember his graduation at age four. That's why in high school I along with thousands of fellow young Floridians worked tirelessly to earn their Bright Futures.

The way I saw it, the state of Florida made a deal with its students. We would excel in school; work hard, get good grades, and receive high standardized test scores. In return, Florida would support us and ensure our academic futures were just was the bright as our pasts'.

But as I have progressed through college, my 100% covers less and less. By my last semester my 100% scholarship only covered 50% of tuition. Now, I am not a math major -- but those numbers don't add up. I held my half of the bargain, Florida didn't. And now, my future doesn't look too bright.

But I'm not the only one. And Florida's students are not the only ones suffering either. Across the nation students are paying more and receiving less towards higher education. Budgets are tight, so rather than making education more accessible, states are increasing tuition -- at a national average of 8% per a year. Here in Florida, we're facing an increase of 15%. But for many young Americans, higher education is no longer an option; it's mandatory. Consequently, without support from the state and a struggling economy, potential college students only have one place to turn -- the loan office.

That would explain why student loan debt has reached $1 trillion -- far exceeding national credit card debt. This tremendous burden is held by only 15% of Americans, compared to the 80% who hold credit cards. The highest average debt to date belongs to last year's graduating seniors. Getting through college is hard enough -- even I can attest to that, and I'm one of those "A' students -- but when the average American college students' debt is $25,250, paying for college is even more difficult.

But those providing the loans are not as concerned. The student loan industry is exactly that - an industry. It's designed to raise revenue on the backs of students. In a practice far too similar to the predatory lending found in subprime mortgages, they charge higher interest rates for those students who need the loans the most (http://motherjones.com/politics/2010/05/subprime-student-loans). According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, nearly three in ten of all student loans have past-due balances of 30 days or more. And unlike other forms of debt, it is nearly impossible to have student loan debt discharged through bankruptcy.

These aren't just statistics. My own graduation from UCF is right around the corner -- and among my own graduating class I have seen the face of student loan debt: classmates who are considering staying in school longer to hold off their debt repayments; friends who cannot afford graduate school because of loans already taken out; and my own struggle to pay for my last semester of college. Just last week, walking in between classes, I overheard a group of young women discussing the debt they have to take on in order to graduate.

Student debt is in the air -- and it's always been here. It's about time proactive steps are taken to restore our bright futures, and make affordable education accessible to all.

There are solutions, and the Obama administration has made great strides in helping students cope with student loan debt. They have instituted the Income-Based Repayment program, lowering the maximum monthly repayment of loans to 10% of income. After 20 years, all loans will be forgiven; if you work in the public sector, it drops to 10 years. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently launched the Financial Aid Comparison Shopper, an online tool designed to help students calculate exactly how much their degree will cost. These are steps in the right direction. However, more needs to be done. If Congress does not act by July, interest rates for federal Stafford Loans will double -- from 3.4% to 6.8%. If tuition continues to increase and lenders continue unregulated, more young Americans will unknowingly sign their futures away.

That's why students like me are fighting back and taking action. We're speaking out on student debt, demanding fair policies from lenders like Sallie Mae, and defending our public universities from further cuts. The key to success in this country is education. In order to keep moving forward, we need to ensure all young Americans have access to affordable education. Only then will we restore our bright futures. And until then, you'll find me and thousands of students fighting on the front lines.

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