Not Just a Foot in the Door

When the first community colleges sought permission to offer four-year degrees, they generally said that it would only be one or two programs — nothing dramatic. But in Florida, where the community college baccalaureate movement is strongest, community colleges now offer more than 100 four-year degrees, and the figure could be about to jump significantly.

August 12, 2010

When the first community colleges sought permission to offer four-year degrees, they generally said that it would only be one or two programs — nothing dramatic. But in Florida, where the community college baccalaureate movement is strongest, community colleges now offer more than 100 four-year degrees, and the figure could be about to jump significantly.

Though a handful of Florida community colleges had won approval to offer select four-year degrees around 2001, the rest of the state took hold of the idea in 2008, when Gov. Charlie Crist signed a controversial bill rebranding the state’s community college system so that its institutions could more readily offer baccalaureate degrees. The four-year degrees authorized were those in disciplines such as nursing and education, where local four-year institutions could not meet the high demand, and in the career-specific concentrations of the applied sciences.

Despite strict state rules keeping the growth of these community college baccalaureate degrees in check, ensuring that they would not adversely affect existing associate degree programs or compete in an unhealthy way with nearby offerings at four-year institutions, some critics remained concerned about the move. As it turned out, growth proved rapid.

In 2008, 10 of the state’s 28 community colleges offered 70 baccalaureate degrees. Now, 18 community colleges offer 111 four-year degrees. Most of the degrees are still in nursing and education; however, growth in the variety of applied science programs has introduced a range of concentrations, from homeland security to fire science management; from interior design to international business. With 24 baccalaureate degrees to choose from, St. Petersburg College offers the most of any community college in the state.

Pamela Menke, vice provost for education at Miami Dade College, said she no longer hears colleagues at four-year institutions or other critics accuse her institution of “mission creep.” Nearby public and private four-year institutions must be consulted when a Florida community college wishes to add a baccalaureate degree, and they can offer competing proposals to address the high need for these programs on their campuses instead. Menke notes that none of the 12 baccalaureate degrees now offered by Miami Dade generated a competing proposal.

By and large, Menke explained, it is less expensive for a community college to add the remaining two years for a program they already offer at the associate degree level than for a nearby four-year institution to create a baccalaureate program from scratch. This, she added, is the case with the college’s new four-year degree in film, television and digital production, as the college already has a studio and all of the high-tech equipment in place.

To show how far these new degrees have come in being accepted around the state, Menke pointed to recent state-level changes in how certain community colleges can introduce them.

Last month, a change in Florida law took effect, giving community colleges that have already successfully added baccalaureate degree programs the ability to petition the state for local autonomy in pursuing further four-year degrees. The details have yet to be finalized by the state system, but the rule change will eventually give boards at colleges that have offered four-year degrees for at least three years the ability to approve any new offerings themselves.

“This will pretty much give our community colleges the same protocol that state universities have when they add baccalaureate degrees,” said Judith Bilsky, executive vice chancellor in the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Student and Academic Success. “It doesn’t say colleges have to go that route. … If anything’s changed, I think it’s that there’s a better understanding of what it means to be part of the Florida College System.”

Bilsky argued that the demographics of students in these new community college baccalaureate degree programs have convinced many that they are not stealing students who would otherwise have gone to four-year institutions. For instance, whereas three-fourths of the students in the state’s public four-year institutions are between the ages of 18 and 25, more than three-fourths of students in community college baccalaureate programs are older than 26 (with most of those being older than 35).

Bilsky added that these new programs are also attracting students from “underserved populations” that have not typically thrived at the state’s four-year institutions. She does not expect future expansion of these degrees to “compete” in any way with those offered by existing state universities.

“I expect any growth of these baccalaureate degrees to come from local need and demand in the areas we’ve already authorized," Bilsky said. “I don’t anticipate the addition of liberal arts degrees. I just don’t see that in the future. Although, ten years ago I didn’t think we’d be where we are now. … If anything, I think we may see the Florida colleges taking on more responsibility for training teachers at the baccalaureate level.”

Menke expressed a similar sentiment about the slim possibility of liberal arts offerings at Miami Dade, which offers the second-most community college baccalaureate degrees in the state.

“It would seem unlikely,” Menke said. “It would be hard to offer English or something like that unless there were clear workforce applications for the degree.”

To Add or Not to Add

The predominant difference between the 18 Florida community colleges that offer baccalaureate degrees and the 10 that do not — as both groups contain a mix of rural and urban institutions and those with fewer and greater neighboring four-year institutions — seems to be the philosophy of their leaders.

Kenneth Walker, president of Edison State College, noted that his institution decided to begin offering baccalaureate degrees in various education concentrations because of the shortage of elementary and secondary school teachers in its five-county service area. In the past two years, the college has also added programs in nursing and public safety management, among others. Walker noted that none of the college’s new degrees generated competing proposals from neighboring four-year institutions.

Though Edison State’s current baccalaureate degrees have not generated any flak from nearby universities — in fact, Florida Gulf Coast University’s president has been complimentary about them in the local press — the community college’s unique plan for the future has produced some concern. Earlier this year, Walker announced he would like to see his institution eventually create a “spinoff” private institution, offering baccalaureate and master’s degrees. In theory, this new institution would not be subject to the limits placed on Edison State as to what kinds of four-year degrees it can offer.

J. David Armstrong, president of Broward College and chancellor of the Florida College System from 2001 to 2006, argued that, despite the attention baccalaureate degrees at his institution receive, they remain just a small portion of what the college offers. He estimated that enrollment in the nine four-year degrees at his institution makes up less than 5 percent of its more than 65,000 students. Also, he noted, the college continues to add new two-year programs.

“Initially, people were concerned about the cannibalization of the traditional community college mission,” Armstrong said. “There were concerns that it would whittle down and take money away from adult education and other programs, but that certainly has not happened here. I keep on telling people that these [baccalaureate] degrees are no more important than some of our new [associate degree] programs, such as marine technology — that’s far more expensive to run than any of our baccalaureate programs. Also, we just added a new air traffic control program that has a $1 million flight simulator. That’s also far more expensive than anything for our baccalaureate degrees.”

Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College, had no intention of adding baccalaureate degrees at his institution. That is, until a nearby four-year institution changed his mind.

“We’re just so committed to our community college mission here that we didn’t want to do anything to devalue it in any way,” said Shugart, noting that Valencia’s main commitment is to its transfer mission and DirectConnect, a new program which gives its students guaranteed admission to the neighboring University of Central Florida.

Central Florida, however, is having overcrowding issues of its own, and has ballooned to become one of the largest undergraduate institutions in the country. Recently, Shugart said, Central Florida officials told him and other neighboring community colleges that regularly feed students into it that the university was dropping a handful of majors due to budget constraints. There programs were, he explained, “reasonably well-enrolled programs [in engineering and allied health] that lead to mostly terminal baccalaureate degrees.”

Given that there was still demand for these programs, Central Florida wanted Valencia to take on at least two of them. So, if Valencia wins the state board's approval, it plans to begin offering baccalaureate degrees in engineering technology and radiology imaging. Shugart acknowledged that if his institution did not offer these degrees they probably would not be offered in and around the Orlando area. Still, he is not eager to add any more four-year degrees.

“We would not have done this if [Central Florida] had not approached us,” Shugart said. “We have our hands pretty full already. As long as the need was met elsewhere, we wouldn’t have done this. … At least for now, ‘community’ is our middle name. I’d like to keep it that way.”

That reluctance to add baccalaureate degrees remains for some of Shugart’s colleagues at community colleges around the state. Few of them, however, express outright opposition to the idea, either on their campuses or on others. Instead, many just think their communities don't require it.

James Drake, president of Brevard Community College, noted that the thought of adding baccalaureate degrees is simply not on his “radar.”

“I don’t foresee the college considering baccalaureate programs, at least in the near-term, because we have longstanding ‘two plus-two’ articulation agreements with the University of Central Florida and the Florida Institution of Technology, both of which guarantee admission to graduates of our A.A. programs, as well as to an increasing number of our A.S. programs,” Drake wrote in an e-mail. “With a guarantee of admission to two nationally known universities in our service area, and with the workforce retraining challenges our residents are facing because of the discontinuation of the space-shuttle program, we have a full plate as it is.”

Katherine Johnson, president of Pasco-Hernando Community College, also felt that her institution is fulfilling the needs of its service area by concentrating on two-year degrees and workforce development programs.

“At this point, we believe that [the college] is filling a unique and much needed niche for our constituency,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail. “Our students are able to complete associate’s degrees affordably and conveniently with many options to transfer degrees to a variety of public and private four-year institutions. … If the need arises, [the college] would certainly do our best to meet the needs of our students by adding bachelor degree programs.”

Some scholars, however, remain concerned about the rapid growth of these degrees.

Linda Serra Hagedorn, professor and director of the Research Institute for Studies in Higher Education at Iowa State University, said that adding too many baccalaureate degrees might water down the traditional mission of community colleges.

“There are a lot of different types of students who knock at the door of community colleges,” said Hagedorn, who before moving to Iowa State was a longtime educational policy researcher at the University of Florida. “I just worry that they’re not going to be able to serve all those different types if they’re bringing in more four-year program students. There will be less room for remediation and truly vocational programs. Some are not going to be as well-served as others. We have to remember the reason community colleges were established in the first place.”

Still, Hagedorn conceded that scholars do not know enough about these community college baccalaureate programs to say whether they have adversely affected existing two-year programs. As to why the furor in Florida over these degrees had died down, she said the answer was simple.

"The cry that ‘oh my god, the community colleges are going to be taking away our students’ didn’t happen,” Hagedorn said. “There’s no shortage of students going to the University of Florida or the University of Central Florida or to any of Florida’s other universities right now.”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top