Monday, September 15, 2008

Brain Drain Boondoggle

I wouldn't begrudge states their policies designed to stop brain drain if the programs didn't cost so much money. Of all places, Florida implemented Bright Futures in order to entice talented high school graduates to stay in-state for college. Florida is using state lottery revenue to fund it, but that money is no longer enough:

Because of falling lottery revenue, legislators approved another transfer of $48 million to boost education spending. Lottery ticket sales pay for Bright Futures, a $347 million program that funds the college educations of about 150,000 students across the state.

Supporters praise Bright Futures' effect on stemming a brain drain of the best Florida students and promoting affordable higher education. Critics say it's a middle-class subsidy as currently structured.

But regardless of where one stands on the philosophical spectrum, it's foolhardy to ignore financial reality, which is philosophy neutral.

The Tampa Tribune reported Thursday that state analysts in July reduced their estimates for lottery transfers to the $1.52 billion Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, which, besides Bright Futures, also funds K-12 bonuses, and construction and other needs in the public schools.

The July shortfall, the Tribune said, was a reflection of expected increases in sales next January, when Florida will introduce Powerball to the lottery. The transfer, however, was a nonrecurring fix. An impressive analysis by the newspaper in February showed that Bright Futures has grown by 165 percent over the past seven years, but that lottery funding for education have grown by less than a fourth of that rate.

As long as Florida is only using lottery money, few seem to care if Bright Futures is helping to stop brain drain. $350 million is a lot to pay for something I doubt is working. Would voters still support the project if they knew it did nothing to affect the out-migration of talent? My guess is that state residents who don't have kids who will be going to university (e.g. retirees) would be livid.

Does Bright Futures really stem the "brain drain of the best Florida students"? That's a cost-benefit analysis I'd like to read. Given the negative publicity about the scholarship program outstripping lottery revenue, the claim of supporters is dubious.

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