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Community colleges may begin offering four-year degrees

A proposal to transform several community colleges into hybrid institutions offering associate and bachelor’s degrees is making headway among state legislators.

The proposal is part of a larger plan to combine Florida’s 28 community colleges under a state college system that would allow more students to obtain four-year degrees.

The concept has had wide support ever since an education consultant from the Pappas Consulting Group Inc. warned last year that Florida’s public universities worked harder at increasing national prestige with expensive research ambitions than on undergraduate education.

One of the key recommendations was shifting the focus of existing public universities and community colleges to undergraduate education to create a new state college system.

Proponents of the plan, spearheaded by Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, have said that allowing community colleges to provide bachelor’s degrees in high-need areas such as teaching and nursing will increase the number of students obtaining degrees and thereby boost the number of professionals in those fields.

Allowing community colleges to offer four-year degrees is also expected to take some of the strain off of state universities, which are struggling to maintain enrollment while becoming higher-quality schools.

Gov. Charlie Crist has announced his support of the plan.

“One of the difficulties we face because of our revenues may be enrollment at the traditional four-year institutions,” he told the St. Petersburg Times. “So, if we find a way to alleviate that problem through our great community college network, that’s a possibility that exists.”

A pilot project across the state utilizing eight institutions – Chipola, Daytona Beach, Indian River, Miami-Dade, Okaloosa-Walton, Polk, Santa Fe and St. Petersburg community colleges – has been recommended.

St. Petersburg College, which started offering bachelor’s degree programs in 2001, will be the model for the new hybrid institutions.

“The closest thing there is to a state college in Florida is St. Pete College,” Palatka said.

Board of Governors (BOG) chancellor Mark Rosenberg said that while the BOG supports the bachelor’s-only universities and the better-trained work force they employ, it recognizes the need to open up the degree possibilities for students.

“We need more access,” he told the Times. “We’ve said for a while there ought to be an intermediate layer.”

Associate professor of higher education Donald Dellow has many years of teaching and administrative experience with community colleges, including a presidency at Broome Community College in New York. He said the plan would allow a greater number of qualified students to earn four-year degrees while universities statewide strive to raise their national status.

“The state universities are all involved in this trend of trying to become more prestigious, and for that, they have to keep raising the entrance requirements. So what happens is you have a lot of students – good students, qualified for academic work – but they can’t get into their own state university system,” he said. “The only other option is to either start brand new institutions or go to community colleges.”

Another benefit to community colleges offering four-year degrees is that students who would have originally needed to transfer can remain at their institutions and avoid the institutional shock of coming to a massive campus like USF, Dellow said.

Although smaller universities or regional campuses might take a hit in enrollment, Dellow does not feel community colleges offering bachelor’s degrees will detract from university programs overall, as some fear.

“It would take an awful lot for the community colleges to grow to where that would become a major concern,” he said. “I think it could work out very effectively.”

Dellow said his only concern with the plan is how community colleges will maintain the open-door policies that differentiate them from other institutions while offering higher-level degree programs.

“The community college has been an institution that has evolved to meet the demands of the community,” he said. “They see themselves as institutions to serve the community, so as the needs emerge and change, then they respond, and I think this is kind of a natural evolution.”

Other questions still linger, including whether funding for these degree programs will impact university funding and how salaries for community college faculty will be determined.

Dellow said larger political implications may loom for universities that resist the plan.

“There could be the political issue of legislators getting frustrated and irritated with the universities, in a sense saying, ‘We don’t want these people,’ and there could be some backlash,” he said.

Dellow also said that the proposal would benefit students.

“It’s a good move for the state and for the students – otherwise, students are going to be disenfranchised, they’ll have no place to go – and it’s too costly to start up more colleges. I think that there really aren’t any other options in Florida.”

USF Provost Ralph Wilcox openly questioned the proposal to revamp community colleges, especially in the midst of dire budgetary strains.

“I don’t see the necessity for this,” he said. “We have a community college system and we have a state university system.”

USF recently inched up its transfer requirements and decreed that soon, first-year students will be required to live in dorms, which Dellow said was in response to budget cuts but also in keeping with the University’s desire to reach top-tier research university status.

“Some of those students that would have transferred here aren’t – and of course, that fits in with the USF plan, because they want to open more dormitories and get more freshmen and sophomores,” he said. “No one is ever going to admit that this kind of fits in with the plan, but I think it does.”

In 2003, James Wattenbarger, known as the father of Florida community colleges, called a similar proposal to allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees “a ridiculous waste of resources” and said such degrees could only be considered “second-class baccalaureates” at best.

Dellow said that although Wattenbarger’s concern is a common one, graduates from four-year community college programs are getting hired and their numbers continue to grow.

“There’s a whole sector of students that are going to be left out if they don’t do something,” he said. “This is the least expensive option, but it’s also a good quality option.”