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The last couple of months has been difficult for Florida's two-year colleges.

They’ve been faced with a Legislature that has sought to fundamentally change how the state’s two-year colleges operate, in addition to the potential loss of millions of state dollars.

On Wednesday, Governor Rick Scott vetoed a higher education bill that would have capped bachelor’s degree enrollments at the colleges, removed the two-year institutions from the purview of the State Board of Education and renamed the state institutions “community colleges,” as they were called eight years ago.

Part of Scott’s reasoning for vetoing the bill was his approval of about $25 million in cuts to the two-year college system, of which most of the money cut was earmarked for remediation programs. Those cuts were part of the annual 2017-18 state budget that Scott signed off on June 2. Scott said that for the past four years, the state has maintained tuition at the 28 state colleges to make them affordable for families, but that legislation created unnecessary red tape.

“We’ll continue to do the best we can with what we have,” said Jesse Coraggio, vice president of institutional effectiveness and academic services at St. Petersburg College. “The important thing is our students. They come first, and that’s where we’ll put our resources. And when we have less funding, we have to make adjustments in other areas.”

St. Petersburg, which was one of the first of the state colleges to make developmental education adjustments following the state Legislature’s decision to reform remediation, would lose about $1.8 million in funding. In 2014, Florida lifted a mandate on requiring the least college-ready high school graduates to take developmental education. Subsequently, enrollment in those courses decreased, which some legislators saw as an invitation to reduce funding for remediation.

But the governor’s veto could work out favorably for colleges like St. Petersburg. The institution anticipated exceeding the proposed cap on bachelor’s degrees by the end of this spring. The cap would have meant enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs could not exceed 15 percent of an institution’s total student population. St. Petersburg was the first two-year college in the state to offer bachelor’s degrees.

“We’re experiencing declining enrollment, but one area that continues to grow for us is bachelor's degree programs,” Coraggio said. “When you look at the enrollment percentage relationship, it would’ve made it more difficult for us.”

In his veto letter, Scott acknowledged that the legislation would have made positive changes to the several university systems, but “it does so at the expense of the Florida College System.” For instance, the legislation would have expanded financial aid programs that benefit college and university students, however, Scott said programs like the Florida Bright Futures Academic Scholars are not harmed by the veto because they were already included in the full state budget. The Bright Futures program is a non-need-based scholarship.

But the concerns surrounding remediation in the state continue.

“The governor should be applauded for vetoing the bill,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. “However, the proposed … cut for the state colleges is a concern. Since Florida is not facing unusually bad budget pressures this year, the question is why the state colleges would be cut when the universities are not. Both are essential for the vitality of the state.”

A new report by Florida State University’s Center for Postsecondary Success found a decline in the percentage of administrators who think the law that lifted the mandate on remediation is working. The researchers found that the proportion of administrators who agree or strongly agree that the policy has been effective has decreased from 74 percent in 2015 to 39 percent in 2017.

“They could become more concerned because there are real budget cuts this year,” said Shouping Hu, a professor of higher education and director of the center.

The legislation certainly helped students who found they could succeed without remediation, Hu said, adding that these students tended to be disadvantaged or minority students who were more likely to be mistakenly placed in remediation in the past.

But at the same time, a number of institutions added support services and reformed their remedial courses to better support students, he said.

“And all of those services cost money, particularly in the early years,” Hu said. “Institutional leaders may be very worried about this situation. They want to help students succeed, but they also have to deal with the budget situation.”

The report revealed that colleges have tried increasing the workload of advising staff without extra pay and using faculty for advising as a way to lower the expense of the remedial reforms. The college leaders surveyed felt they had made numerous improvements to the advising process, but fewer than a third of respondents said advisers had enough time to meet with students.

“Florida has done a lot of work trying to rapidly reform developmental education, and they did enthusiastically move forward on a lot of efforts to help students be college ready faster,” said Karen Stout, president and chief executive officer of Achieving the Dream. “They hired new advisers, set up tutoring centers, aligned tutoring with content, did corequisite courses, and it all has initial costs and continuing costs.”

Corequisite remedial courses combine college-level classes with additional supports like tutoring.

In St. Petersburg, the college responded to the initial remedial reforms by redesigning software systems that collected more detailed high school record information and created an early prediction model, so that even if students opted out of the placement exam, they could make a more informed decision about whether or not they needed a developmental course, Coraggio said, adding that the college also added support services to gateway courses.

“Bottom line is revenue saved through declines in remedial enrollment should not be considered a savings, but rather reallocated to support students in college-level gateway courses,” Jenkins said.

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