From Good Intentions to Government Entitlement

Johnathan Lott

We live in an age of entitlement.  Voters believe that the government should exist to give them whatever they so desire.  After all, they never really see the cost of it.  This mentality has led to a marked rise in entitlement programs both in the federal and state governments.  And these entitlements aren’t just for the poor and marginalized; everyone wants their fair share of government handouts.

The Florida Bright Futures program provides and excellent case study of this phenomenon.  The program was enacted in 1997 – under a Republican legislature and a moderate Democrat governor – to provide scholarships for Florida’s best and brightest to attend college in Florida.

The idea behind it was to keep Florida’s top students in Florida rather than lose them to “brain drain” at more prestigious out-of-state universities.  In time, these top students would bring added enough value to Florida’s economy to mitigate the cost of the scholarship.

And the scholarship would be funded by revenue from the state lottery.  Great idea, right?

It should have been a great idea.  But it quickly devolved into an entitlement.

People started calling their state representative and asking “Can my kid have free college?  He’s a really smart guy.”

And the politicians’ response was universally “Why not?” 

And this wasn’t just the liberal Democrats saying this.  These were conservative Republican politicians who stressed fiscal responsibility in their campaigns.

And sure enough, the program went from “keep the best and brightest in Florida” to “give every high school grad free college.”  The standards were set so low that nearly any college-bound graduate could qualify.  Students need only manage a 970 SAT and a 3.0 weighted GPA – significantly lower than the average student admitted to a state university.  These aren’t exactly the students who might go off to attend a prestigious out-of-state college.

By comparison, at the University of Florida, the most selective state school, the average student in the class of over six thousand had about a 1300 SAT and a 4.14 GPA.

There is no surprise that the standards ended up so low and such a high fraction of college students qualify for the program.  The politicians have no reason not to keep the standards so low.  After all, why not earn votes by telling every voter’s kids that they are Florida’s “best and brightest?”

And so what was once a sound public policy aimed to improve Florida’s economy became a middle-class handout.  And the results have been disastrous.

Since so many people qualify for the program, it has been in constant danger of running out of revenue.  And rather than reform the program, and upset entitled voters, the legislature has instead cut the funding from education directly.  In-state tuition has been set a extremely low levels so ensure that the program has enough money.  As a result, state universities are drastically underfunded, and extract the money from students in the form of “fees.”

In the recent budget crisis, when legislators finally realized that the program was unsustainable, they decided to ruin the program entirely.  They changed to the program to pay a fixed dollar amount in scholarship, and colleges can raise tuition above that.

And so ended the elaborate lie of keeping the best and brightest in Florida.  At least the state now admits that the program is no more than a government subsidy.

Higher education in Florida, much due to the failed entitlement program, is worse off than it was fifteen years ago.  The people were greedy and spoiled, and they had to pay for what they took.

But even now, with the program gutted and the state deficit growing, the people still want their subsidy.

Entitlement is not just a name for a government program.  It is a way of thought, omnipresent among voters nationwide, that gives politicians the opportunity to buy votes to our own detriment.

And until America overcomes the entitlement mentality, we will continue to see our own wanton greed ruin what good still remains.