April 24, 2018

Higher Education: State Colleges

A Mission Leap for Florida's Colleges

Is the new Florida College System cutting-edge or overreaching?

Cynthia Barnett | 6/28/2011
Miami Dade Community College
Twenty of the 28 colleges have taken the "community" out of their names, and 19 schools now offer bachelor's degrees. The systemwide change in mission came as the result of politics rather than any sort of long-term planning. [Photo: Miami Dade Community College]

[Photo: Miami Dade Community College]
When Michael Fernandez decided to return to college for a bachelor's degree four years ago, the emergency-dispatch trainer for the Coral Gables Police Department narrowed his choices to two: A criminal justice degree from four-year Florida International University or a public safety management bachelor's from Miami Dade College, one of the former community colleges that now offer four-year degree programs.

Fernandez chose MDC because its offering was "much more specific to my field." He received his diploma this spring, a member of the only graduating class in Florida with a commencement address delivered by President Barack Obama.

Fernandez's degree -- and the school's ability to arrange a presidential send-off for its graduates -- reflects the ambitions of MDC and the 27 other colleges in what's now called the Florida College System. Over the past decade, Florida's community colleges "have made monumental shifts in expanding their mission," says Deborah Floyd, an education professor at Florida Atlantic University who has written a book about the national trend of community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees.

No state has gone further than Florida in expanding the range of schools that can offer four-year degrees. And other states and their community colleges are watching carefully to see how Florida's experiment works out. "Florida is the bellwether," says Floyd, a former community college president.

The state's "monumental shift" culminates five decades of growth for the community college system, which the state created in 1957 and became the most progressive in the nation. Open to anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent, the community system had at its heart a guarantee called "two-plus-two": A student who earned an associate's degree from a community college could transfer seamlessly to a public university and earn a bachelor's degree.

Carl Kuttler, former President of SPJC
In 2001, Carl Kuttler, president of what was then St. Petersburg Junior College, convinced the Legislature to allow his school to be the first Florida community college to offer a baccalaureate degree. Kuttler, now retired, argued that the demands of modern workplaces meant the schools needed to offer bachelor's degrees along with associate degrees and vocational certificates.
[Photo: Craig Denis]

Community colleges quickly became the workhorses of higher education in Florida; enrollment increased statewide from about 3,000 students to about 75,000 in 1967. By the turn of the century, the state's 28 community colleges were doing their jobs so well that they were showing up the public universities -- at least when it came to producing degrees. By 2000, Florida ranked third in the nation in the number of associate's degrees awarded but an embarrassing 47th in bachelor's degrees.

Meanwhile, demand for higher education continued to explode. Along with a growing number of Florida high school graduates, more adults in the workforce began looking for college degrees and training.

The solution seemed clear to some lawmakers and college presidents: Let community colleges offer bachelor's degrees. But many, including James Wattenbarger, founder of the community college system, warned against that move. They believed employers and grad schools would see bachelor's degrees from community colleges as "second class." And they feared that the expense and effort of creating, accrediting and operating four-year programs would shift dollars and attention away from the students who needed community colleges the most.

Leveraging his political connections, former St. Petersburg Junior College President Carl Kuttler convinced the Legislature to allow his campus to become the first to enter the baccalaureate arena. In 2001, the same bill that abolished the Board of Regents lopped the name "Junior" from SPJC and allowed the school to offer bachelor's degrees in nursing, education and applied science.

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