Partnership Friction: Private and community colleges offer four-year degrees
Private colleges question the plunge by community colleges into baccalaureate programs.
Private colleges account for 26% of the state’s undergraduate degree production — and 25% of degrees to minority students. That’s an important contribution in a state trying to boost its low ranking in degree holders, and the private schools say they’re at a price disadvantage to the new programs. Saint Leo’s tuition per credit hour, after the state financial aid grant to private students, still is $160 compared to $100 at the community colleges.
Private college presidents tread carefully as they raise their concerns, saying they have more than their parochial interests at heart. “It’s an important subject, and it’s a delicate subject,” says Arthur F. Kirk Jr., Saint Leo’s president.
In essence, they argue that with Florida public universities and state colleges already living on lean funding, Florida is mistaken to allow such a shift by state and community colleges into the baccalaureate business, diluting emphasis and resources available for the traditional two-year degree mission. They add that recent Florida history shows higher education administrators, boards and their elected representatives will engage in empire building, an expensive endeavor in a state college system with 66 campuses and 181 sites.
The cost is staggering, Abare says. Instead, the state should come up with a master plan, perhaps designating a handful of colleges to confer baccalaureates. ICUF wants to see the state retain FRAG, its grant program for Florida residents who attend in-state private schools. Increasing FRAG aid to its former level of $3,000 from a budgeted $2,500 next year would be more a more efficient way to make baccalaureate degrees accessible than adding programs throughout the public system, ICUF argues.
The argument against “mission creep” isn’t a new one, though it continues to rankle proponents — “like running your fingernails on the blackboard,” says Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, a national group based in Bonita Springs that advocates for state colleges conferring four-year degrees.
At Florida State College at Jacksonville, 2,550 out of 51,562 students are in 13 bachelor degree programs. Willis Holcombe, the school’s interim president and the retired chancellor of the state college system, says it’s “absolutely consistent with our mission, which is to meet the employment needs of the community. In some cases, the most critical unmet needs are at the baccalaureate level. I think the employment needs of the state ought to drive the market. That from my point of view is not a mission creep.”
Florida state college baccalaureate offerings don’t dilute resources for two-year degree programs any more than any other new program does, Holcombe says. Community colleges, like the public universities, have been raising tuition to cover program costs. And he says the community college baccalaureates often help working adults who need a bachelor’s at a nearby location to advance at their government or private employer.
Holcombe says he understands the private schools’ concerns and sees how the community college baccalaureate programs threaten the flow of associate degree holders that historically transferred to public and private four-year institutions. But, he says, “I wouldn’t lay the blame, if you will, on the fact we’re offering degrees. I think it’s largely an issue now of the affordability of postsecondary education.”