Florida's state colleges — once known as community colleges — are the primary access point to higher education for many high school graduates. But an effort championed by Senate leaders would hinder state colleges' ability to add programs and respond to workforce demands. After opening up the possibilities for colleges, turning the clock back to limit them would be a mistake.
In 2008, the Legislature authorized community colleges to offer four-year degrees in fields where demand is high for professionals, such as nursing and teaching. The institutions were renamed "state colleges," and they followed St. Petersburg College's lead in offering baccalaureate degrees. The system has built-in checks, including restrictions such as limiting four-year degrees to fields that lead directly to jobs rather than liberal arts degrees in areas such as history or English. Neighboring universities and private colleges could weigh in on proposals and object if the community colleges were trying to start duplicative programs. In Pinellas County, the relationship between SPC and USF St. Petersburg works well. SPC president Bill Law calls it "the best public policy I've ever been associated with." USF St. Petersburg chancellor Sophia Wisniewska calls SPC "a longstanding and a valuable partner."
That is why some aspects of the Senate's College Competitiveness Act, SB 374, seem like solutions in search of problems. The bill would extend the notice period from 100 days to a year that state colleges must provide for proposing new four-year programs and eliminate the requirement for a university to suggest alternatives if it objects to the college's plan. It would establish a new governing board to oversee state colleges. And in the name of avoiding "wasteful duplication" of degree programs, it would cap state college enrollment in four-year programs at 8 percent of the student body. But wasteful duplication is difficult to find, especially with enrollment in state college bachelor's programs up 102 percent since 2011. With demand so high, why limit them?
Senate leaders cite "mission creep" as a concern, arguing state colleges may be losing sight of their primary role — to provide access to higher education and workforce readiness — while intruding on the purpose of universities. But state colleges, 28 of them, serve many parts of the state with no nearby university — Marianna, Daytona Beach, Fort Pierce. Their students are older, on average, than university undergrads and many are mid career, seeking a degree that will help them earn advancement. Often balancing work and family, many are not enrolled full time. That's a very different profile from the fresh high school graduate heading off to Tallahassee ready to assume a full course load.
The bill does not make sense cost-wise, either. A state college degree is considerably cheaper than a university degree. But by limiting the availability of programs at state colleges, students would be forced to pay more and assume more debt.
Senate leaders have big plans for higher education in the legislative session that begins next month. They've offered smart ideas to expand financial aid and help students graduate faster and save money, backed by a promised $1 billion investment over two years. But revamping Florida's state college system is an unnecessary part of the plan. These institutions are serving a specific student population, turning out career-ready graduates and doing it for a bargain. Imposing new, arbitrary barriers on their growth would be a regrettable reversal that would hamper access and affordability for students.