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Partnership Friction: Private and community colleges offer four-year degrees

In 2001, St. Petersburg Junior College, as the public community college in Pinellas County was then known, won permission to move beyond its traditional two-year degree offerings and confer four-year degrees.

Allowing community colleges to confer four-year degrees would open access to such degrees to more Floridians — especially working adults — and meet employer needs in a convenient and affordable way. Since then, Florida has embraced the concept like no other state in the nation. In Florida, 23 of the 28 institutions in what’s now the state college system can confer baccalaureate degrees; nationally only 31 other colleges do so. In March alone, four colleges won approval from the Florida Board of Education for more four-year programs; the board has now approved 152 degree programs.

Students have flocked to the cheaper programs. More than 19,000 students in Florida (six of the 12 state university institutions have fewer students than that number) are working on a baccalaureate degree that will be conferred by a community or state college.

Baccalaureates account for just 2% of state college degrees, but the share is growing. At Florida State College at Jacksonville, baccalaureate enrollment is growing 22% a year, albeit off a small base. At Broward College, a bachelor’s in supervision and management is one of the top 10 programs by number of students. “Florida’s looked at as one of the bellwether states, and by bellwether I mean trendsetter,” says Dale Campbell, a University of Florida education professor and authority on community colleges.

But a critical voice is emerging against the baccalaureate juggernaut — the state’s private colleges and universities. For years, the private institutions have partnered with community colleges: Accepting community college two-year degree holders into their programs to complete a bachelor’s without losing any credits and offering bachelor’s degrees on community college campuses. Private Flagler College in St. Augustine, for example, offers bachelor’s degrees in business, accounting, elementary education and exceptional education at Tallahassee Community College.

The collaboration “has been highly successful,” says Flagler President William T. Abare Jr. For those students who qualified for the state’s Florida Resident Access Grants — the state gave $2,150 this year to Florida private school students — the cost of a Flagler bachelor’s at Tallahassee worked out to no more than the tuition for another two years of community college. “A terrific deal,” Abare says.

Pros and Cons of Expanded Offerings

» Proponents: Proponents say community college bachelor’s programs widen access to higher ed, are more affordable for students, cheaper for taxpayers, relieve pressure on overburdened public universities and meet employer needs, especially in applied degree fields — specialty jobs that once took only an associate’s degree now require a four-year degree, specialties that universities don’t have experience in or want to invest in offering.

» Opponents: Opponents of four-year degrees say the offerings dilute community colleges’ two-year degree mission, mean higher-cost faculty, labs and libraries and raise issues of quality and outcomes — a community college bachelor’s isn’t cheaper if a student doesn’t complete it in a timely way.

Those partnerships, however, have diminished as community colleges’ own baccalaureate programs have increased, says Ed Moore, president of the Independent Colleges & Universities of Florida. The number of sites where private colleges offer baccalaureates on state college system campuses fell 43% from 2004 to 2011, according to ICUF. “We’re not huge fans,” Moore says.

Private Saint Leo University, for example, ended its elementary education baccalaureate at public St. Petersburg College after St. Petersburg won approval to confer its own degree. Enrollment overall has been reduced across other Saint Leo programs offered at community colleges.

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.”