Leaders of a Florida community college are planning to create an independent university offering baccalaureate and graduate degrees, arguing that existing four-year institutions in the region are not helping enough of the two-year institution's low-income and minority graduates continue their educations.
Last fall, officials from Edison State College, in Fort Myers, filed paperwork  with the Florida Department of State to incorporate Edison University, the proposed name for the private, nonprofit institution. The charter has since been approved, and Kenneth P. Walker, Edison State’s president, is listed as the new entity’s registered agent.
The private university would be part of a larger experimental project headed by Walker, who is attempting to create a truly “seamless” system of education, from kindergarten through college, around the existing community college. This fall, Edison State is opening a charter high school , the first step in the process. Eventually, Walker hopes to open charter elementary and secondary schools that feed into the new high school.
Those students who make it through the new charter system and Edison State would be guaranteed admission to the proposed private university to earn a baccalaureate degree. The spinoff institution would be run by different boards and leaders than Edison State, but tied to a working relationship with it. Like most community colleges in Florida, Edison State already offers a number of baccalaureate degrees in high-need fields such as teaching and nursing. The new private university, however, would have no state limitations on what type of bachelor's degrees it could offer.
Walker hopes that the new university will cater to low-income and minority students who might not attend other four-year institutions in the area, either because they cannot afford to attend, do not meet the criteria for admission, or cannot find a seat because the universities do not accept enough community college transfers.
“We have developed a concept for creating such a [seamless] system using charter schools and a private nonprofit university,” Walker wrote in an initial e-mail before an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “It can be developed as a model to address the crisis in education that everyone is talking about. Our current system of education is serving primarily the ‘elite,’ in a meritocracy that is leaving thousands of Floridians un-served. Our model plans to provide hope, encouragement, nurturing support and caring to these students with the goal of keeping them in school, receiving a high school diploma and then access to a bachelor’s degree in a unified system, which will avoid the perils of admission/transferring to another institution.”
The new university, Walker added, would likely have to begin by leasing space from Edison State. He said details such as how much to charge for tuition and fees have yet to be worked out, as the plan is still in the conceptual stage. He also noted that such a public-private incubation was not entirely new, pointing out that such a process took place in reverse during the 1970s. Rio Grande University, a private institution in Ohio, created Rio Grande Community College , a public two-year institution, in 1974. The two still share a common campus and have a seamless transfer system similar to the one Walker envisions for Edison State students.
Neighboring Institutions Not Sold
Other four-year institutions in the Fort Myers area, however, are not convinced that a compelling case exists for creating a new university, public or private, in southwest Florida.
“We have 10 institutions of higher education in southwest Florida, two public and eight private [non-profits],” said Wilson G. Bradshaw, president of nearby Florida Gulf Coast University. “They all serve different populations. I think that there are enough institutions of higher education right now. There is no data being presented as to why we need another one, either.”
This past fall, more than 1,700 students transferred into Florida Gulf Coast from Edison State. The next-largest source for community college transfers to Florida Gulf Coast was the State College of Florida at Manatee-Sarasota – which sent only about 100 students.
Bradshaw acknowledged that a new private institution with a solid relationship with Edison State would have the potential to siphon away many students who are currently being served by his university. He also takes umbrage at Walker’s suggestion that Florida Gulf Coast and other four-year institutions in the state are not providing enough access to traditionally underserved students.
“I don’t think we’re under-serving low-income and minority students,” Bradshaw said. “We are trying to find more ways to serve those populations, as those are the ones that are growing. Frankly, I don’t see how a private, not-for-profit university would be a better vehicle for serving poor and minority students than a public university like ours. There’s no capacity issue here.”
Unlike officials from neighboring institutions, officials from the Florida Department of Education do not currently have strong opinions about Walker’s proposal.
“I’m not expert enough in the programs offered by all of the other institutions in the area to determine whether this is the right way to meet this service gap or not,” said Willis N. Holcombe, chancellor of Florida’s State College System , the new name for the community college system.
“The idea that we might have to turn to the private sector to meet this need might start a new dialogue. We need more access to higher education in Florida. If this is a possible solution to provide that, then that’s great. Is this the solution I would have suggested? Probably not. I probably would’ve been more straightforward and pushed just more transfer opportunity and baccalaureate degrees. But we are in no danger of overeducating Floridians. This is a choice they should have. Having this conversation doesn’t bother me, and I hope it won’t bother the other leaders down there.”
Scholars Assess ‘Unconventional’ Idea
Community college scholars acknowledge the rarity of Edison State’s move, but they also admit it should not come as a surprise to Floridians.
“While such efforts are rare, it’s not surprising it be proposed in Florida, a fast-growth state whose elected leaders have not recently been accused of overfunding public higher education operating budgets,” Stephen G. Katsinas, professor of higher education and director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, wrote via e-mail. “That in recent decades the proprietary institutions have seen their greatest brick and mortar penetration regions in states where the long-term underinvestment in public higher education funding has been the greatest should surprise no one.”
Other experts who have studied Florida’s higher education system noted that starting an institution from scratch with private funds would ensure that the right finances were in place to sustain it.
“Florida's low tuition rates make it difficult for the colleges to operate effectively and certainly [to] expand,” wrote Linda Serra Hagedorn, professor and director of the Research Institute for Studies in Higher Education at Iowa State University. “The idea of a private [institution] means that the tuition rates and associated fees can dramatically differ from [those] charged to the community colleges. This structure will allow the college to charge the rates that cover the expenses. On a very positive side, such a college does allow additional students to achieve success. It appeals to place bound and working students. The state universities cannot service the demand. The large demand allows the universities to be more selective – hence more and more hopefuls are denied service.”
Despite the unusual methods being considered by Edison’s leaders and the potential for failure, some in-state observers credit Walker with trying something different.
“I truly believe that Ken Walker's heart is in the right place – providing diverse opportunities for low-income and minority students in higher education,” wrote Deborah L. Floyd, professor of higher education leadership at Florida Atlantic University. “Admittedly, Edison University won't take off within the next five years and will require private funding. President Walker's passion to ensure that his students are not denied access to all the higher education they want and need is admirable. His methods may be unconventional, but I believe his intentions are honorable. Time will tell.”