Thursday, April 15

I Earned Wisconsin's Version of Bright Futures: Here's My View of Florida's System and The Fight to Keep it Bright

A quarter-century ago, I was ranked 2nd in my class and 95th percentile in the ACT, so I earned Wisconsin's version of Florida's Bright Futures award. Since Florida is considering changing how Bright Futures is distributed, I thought I'd weigh in based on my own experiences.

I DID stay in Wisconsin for college, even though I had other opportunities. I was slated to eschew my Wisconsin free ride for better offers: 75% scholarships at many Midwestern private colleges and 100% at Marquette with the NROTC scholarship, which I accepted. The point is that Florida gets it right with its more open version of the scholarship, since many of the top three students at any given high school (those who qualified for Wisconsin's free tuition) might choose other universities. When I lost my Navy scholarship because of an arm surgery, I was certainly thankful to have the state money, and if Florida can help the kids who work hard to maintain high levels of education in high school, they will also be thankful.

I had counted on being directed to a good major by the Navy, but when I lost that scholarship, I began a search that lasted five years of undergrad and two more years of graduate school. Only four years were paid by Wisconsin, but it made sense to stay once I began in the state. I bounced from Business to Architecture, eventually choosing English as my scholarship ran out. I'd later earn a teaching certification. I was a good student who became a teacher, and that's not always the case. If my education hadn't mostly been paid for by the state, I would have continued with a major that would have earned me more money but less value to the state that paid for my degree. Of course, Wisconsin decided with Act 10 that many teachers were not valued, so I got laid off and eventually landed in Florida. But the brightest spot in that personal loss was Florida's view on higher education for my own kids.

If Florida decides to change the system to force students who earn Bright Futures into employable majors, stories like mine will no longer exist here (where an undecided but high-achieving teenager can eventually find a career that benefits society). If the scholarship's funding becomes dependent on other factors, it creates an uncertainty that will taint the program. 

An old politician representing counties with a majority of retirees wants to decide which high-achieving high school students deserve a scholarship and whether Bright Futures remains fully funded. I'm sure all the STEM and marketing and engineering kids would still get free rides, while the Art and English majors might get told to pay their own way. But they all worked for that same scholarship, and an engineer can pay off an actual student loan in half the time of an art teacher without the stress of teaching kids and dealing with their parents. 

Anyone out there who went to college and didn't major in Women's Studies, Art, Black Studies, Urban Education, Philosophy, or Military History (among other majors) will recognize that some majors are seen as more employable than others. I understand that. But Florida made the right decision to allow its best high school students to choose which majors make the most sense for them. In fact, if politicians have a problem with some of the goofy majors available at state colleges, then fix it at the college level rather than forcing teenagers to decide which fields are worth less than others.

 In receiving my own English major, I also picked up a minor in French and a certificate in Urban Planning. I took upper-level architecture, math, and business courses, along with all the general education classes needed to qualify as a liberal arts major. If I hadn't blown 12 years of employment on being a public school teacher, I would have been very employable in many fields right out of college.

My cousin, who was an art major, eventually became (basically) an accountant, but she initially got hired partially because she had a college degree. Employers have said that college matters, and they want employees with creativity, which sometimes means even non-employable college majors lead to employment. If nothing else, you've shown you can handle an extra few years in a confined, prison-like setting beyond high school, which bodes well for cubicle life. 

There's nothing wrong with informing high school graduates which jobs should have the most growth or which jobs pay the most, but the diversity available at universities is part of what makes the education relevant. My friend, who was also an English major, is now a high-profile corporate stooge at a major insurance company, making more money than all the marketing, accounting, and statistics majors under him. He also earned the Wisconsin version of Bright Futures, and he also chose to major in something he was interested in rather than what a politician might have told him to pursue. 

High-achieving students will pick majors that make sense to them and remain dedicated to a state that helps them out. Plenty of Florida's finest students end up with full rides to elite schools outside of the Sunshine State. Bright Futures won't keep the Ivy League or MIT-bound kids here. If that was the purpose, then it was ill-conceived from the outset. Sure, some kids will head to the elite schools in the East or West and then come back, but most of the Bright Futures kids will stick around, at least for a while, maybe until they figure out what their majors mean for employment opportunities. It's not like Georgia has a lot more psychology opportunities than Florida.

Speaking of psychology, I wonder why Senator Baxley wants to change Bright Futures. He seems to have one child who became a psychiatrist (and might have some answers for us), but Baxley himself spent time at two community colleges and Florida State in order to become a funeral home director and then career politician. Though I'm sure lucrative, funeral home director is generally not on the list of sought-after degrees by top students. At least one of the Baxley kids followed Daddy's profession of burying folks, while another became a police officer. Maybe the other kids are computer programmers or have other STEM careers, but the point is that if Baxley is cool with his own family choosing to serve others in careers that aren't always seen as lucrative or respected, then why is he in charge of telling my kids that they can't major in Jazz Studies at UNF?

I think I get it, and it's nothing new. Underachievers who rise to power and want to proclaim they know everything. People with average intelligence and average kids who feel vindicated if they can pull others down to their level. While I've had to deal with being the smartest person in the room most of my life, I'm sure Senator Baxley has had to deal with being the most conservative person in the room. (Or the only person in the room who knows what it's like to prepare a dead body for burial or take money from an inheritance in order to pay for a mahogany casket or the smell of cremated human flesh.)

As The Undertaker once said, "If the eyes are the windows to the soul, you're not going to like the view." Perhaps Florida's Undertaker needs to look into the mirror and ask himself a few pertinent questions. Since he won't, those of you who live in The Villages and have grandkids in Florida (or anywhere) who might work hard to get a scholarship that's been promised, please get over your fear of talking to a curator of the dead and send Baxley a email or letter. 
206 South Hwy 27/441
Lady Lake, FL 32159
(352) 750-3133
Senate VOIP: 41200

We don't know what's next if this passes. Will Senator Baxley suggest we defund the police because some officers every year don't follow protocol and end up hurting citizens? Will he require every police officer to have a social work degree? Will he defund state government? Churches? 

My family has made Florida our home. Low taxes are good. Winters are nice. But the state's Bright Futures program has been the light at the end of the educational tunnel. If it's defunded or if students are forced to choose certain careers that Old Uncle Dennis prefers, then it's nowhere near as bright. 

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