Florida lawmakers have spent the last several months slashing university budgets, and now they’re looking to the state’s community colleges for help filling some of the universities' traditional roles.
A handful of Florida community colleges have been offering accredited bachelor’s degrees for years, but last week Gov. Charlie Crist officially sanctioned a bold and controversial plan that will expand that practice and change the complexion of higher education in the state.
At a ceremony Thursday, Crist signed a bill that establishes a new college system in Florida, where a population boom has outpaced the growth and funding of the university system. For supporters, the creation of the “Florida College System” is a reasonable step toward stimulating degree production at a lower cost to the state and would-be students. Critics, however, call the idea yet another rushed plan (in a state that has a history of college governance on the fly) that threatens the traditional missions of community colleges and creates competition with their university partners.
Linda Serra Hagedorn, professor and chair of educational administration and policy at the University of Florida, says she’s concerned that expanding the missions of community colleges could eventually cause the institutions to drift away from core principles, including open access admissions policies. Hagedorn, who studies community colleges, is also curious about what such an expansion says about the state’s priorities.
“Why is it that we feel that we can fund community colleges to do this, but we can’t fund the universities to do it? That’s another problem that I’m having,” said Hagedorn, whose university is undergoing layoffs and program eliminations after a $47 million budget reduction.
Need for Degrees Not in Dispute
The need to increase the state’s bachelor’s degree production, in one way or another, has been well documented. In early 2007, a consultant hired by state higher education leaders reported that Florida ranked 43rd in the nation for bachelors degrees awarded per 1,000 residents between the ages of 18 and 44. Given projected population growth -- nearly 20 percent by 2014 -- the Pappas Consulting Group suggested that the state consider creating a separate category of institutions that would focus solely on undergraduate education.
The Pappas report  suggested that community colleges could be a part of a new state college system that focused purely on awarding undergraduate degrees, but the report also cautioned that such moves had the potential to change the focus of community colleges and dilute their traditional missions.
The report also noted that universities in Florida have increasingly focused on graduate degree production, even amid calls for increased emphasis on undergraduate education. Florida increased bachelor's degree production by 42 percent between 1993 and 2003, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. At the same time, however, Florida's master's degree production went up by 59 percent, and doctorates increased by 56 percent.
Even as community colleges are called upon to do more, leaders of the colleges say they'll stick to their existing missions. Indeed, Florida’s new legislation specifically requires the colleges to maintain remedial class offerings and open access admissions. That said, there’s no doubt change is afoot. The legislation changes the names of the nine colleges participating in a pilot program, dropping the word “community” in a symbolic shift that has caused some uneasiness.
Miami-Dade College, which already offers eight bachelor’s programs, changed its name years ago. Norma Martin Gooden, provost for academic and student affairs at the college, says she’s heard little criticism of the change.
“The community feels that we are part of the community,” she said. “We are responsive to them, no matter what we’re called.”
There is no requirement, however, that community colleges change their names if their degree offerings expand as well. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has accredited bachelor’s programs at several colleges, and some have opted to keep “community” in their names.
“Those that kept (their names) seemed to be saying philosophically we’re very closely tied to the local community and we want to keep that community word in our name to convey that philosophy,” said Tom Benberg, chief of staff for SACS’ Commission on Colleges.
Ken Walker, president of Edison College, traditionally a two-year institution in Fort Myers, Fla., said he became an advocate for expanding the college’s degree offerings after years of hearing hard-luck stories from students.
“It started with the students,” he said. “I kept getting comments and questions from our students, saying ‘I really wish I could stay at Edison and get a bachelor’s degree; I can’t afford to go off to a university.’
“Single moms and working parents who are basically place-bound didn’t have a way to go up to a university and pursue a bachelor’s degree, but that has become the ticket to the better paying jobs in this economy.”
Walker laments that universities, which are increasingly competitive, turn away thousands of Florida students each year because of their admissions standards and space limitations. That problem has been exacerbated this year, because universities across the state have frozen enrollments in the face of funding cuts.
Walker says he is aware of concerns about whether community colleges can offer bachelor's degrees of the same quality provided by universities, but he points to the fact that his programs meet the same accreditation standards as their university counterparts. Changing perceptions about quality, however, will take time, he said.
“It’s like anything else. It takes time when you’re making changes, when you’re adapting,” Walker said. “Perceptions change slowly, but it will happen and it will be a good thing.”
Some Blame Low University Funding
Stephen Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center, says there’s a good reason Florida’s demand for degrees now so outweighs its ability to offer them. Universities simply haven’t been funded at the levels necessary to prepare for the long-anticipated population growth that’s taking place in the Sunshine State, he said.
“If Florida had made the investments they should have been making in the late '70s, and especially in the '80s and '90s, they would not be in such dire straits,” said Katsinas, a professor of higher education and former Florida resident.
Supporters of expanding the role of Florida’s community colleges point to savings opportunities. The colleges’ faculty members, who are seldom required to do research, work for less than their university counterparts and carry heavier teaching loads. As a result, community colleges can typically offer tuition that’s about 30 percent lower than a public university in Florida, the St. Petersburg Times  reported.
It’s little wonder that state officials are now looking for a cheaper way to educate residents, Katsinas said. Florida’s tax structure, often maligned by higher education leaders and politicians alike, hasn’t rewarded population growth. Furthermore, the aging population has put a strain on resources in Florida, where the state has to match about $1 for every $3 the federal government provides in Medicaid, Katsinas said.
“I do not know how you can separate this [bachelor’s degree] issue from the long-term funding cycles that have negatively affected Florida, where population growth, plus uncontrolled Medicaid cost increases --- over which the state has almost no control -- have lowered the discretionary funds available for public higher education at all levels,” Katsinas said.
Not Opting In
Ken Pruitt, the president of the Florida Senate and a product of Indian River Community College, heralded the legislation creating the college system as “second edition to the G.I. bill.” But some college leaders aren’t quite ready to get on board with the program. The president of Tallahassee Community College, which sits in close proximity to Florida State and Florida A&M Universities, says Tallahassee has no desire to expand its offerings.  Ditto for colleges near the University of Central Florida, a fast-growing institution in Orlando with 49,000 students.
When other community colleges in Florida started offering bachelor’s degrees several years ago, UCF officials were quick to ensure that didn’t happen in their own backyard. The university has created a formal consortium with four nearby community colleges. Known as “Direct Connect to UCF,” the partnership ensures that graduates of the participating colleges will be automatically admitted to UCF -- so long as those colleges stay out of the bachelor’s degree business.
“It just makes sense, at least where we are, to collaborate instead of compete,” said David Harrison, vice provost for UCF’s regional campuses.
According to Central Florida's most recent tally, there are 18,000 students who have declared an intention to be in the “direct connect” pipeline. This year, the university had more than 4,000 graduates -- more than half the graduating class -- who had transferred from community colleges.
Florida’s new college system will begin with a pilot program, in which nine of the state’s 28 community colleges will participate. The colleges, most of which already offer bachelor’s degrees, will make recommendations to the Legislature about the approval process for future bachelor’s degrees and a new funding model for the state college system.
In short, Florida has created a task force that will make recommendations for how to put in place a system that has, in essence, already been implemented. Sherman Dorn, an associate professor of education at the University of South Florida, said he’s not surprised to see the state acting first and planning later.
“I’ve been in Florida for 12 years; nothing surprises me,” said Dorn, who heads the university’s faculty union. “No, it’s not rational. Yes, it’s Florida.”