Florida's state colleges are better than good enough
On vacation this summer, I ran into an executive I knew who had spent a decade in Florida before leaving about five years ago for an opportunity in another state. Reflecting on his time here, he said that the most frustrating thing about Florida for him was a tendency, particularly in the public sector, to be satisfied with “good enough” rather than striving for real excellence.
His remarks made me consider which, if any, institutions I would consider as a counterpoint. For at least a decade, I’d say, the highest-performing institution in Florida has been the Florida State College system — the 28 schools formerly called community colleges — which by just about any measure ranks among the best in the country.
The state colleges do a lot with a little. Underfunded, they start with students who are typically not the top performers in their high schools or who have been away from education for years while working. State law prohibits state colleges from requiring remedial courses, putting additional pressure on counselors and professors to help students succeed. Adding to the challenge: Twothirds of students in the FSC system continue working while they’re studying.
Florida’s state colleges nevertheless are the No. 1 producer of associate’s degrees and workforce-related certificates among a group of southern states, including much-larger Texas. More notable: They’re consistently first among that group in the rate of students who complete degrees and certificate programs — and have widened the gap between themselves and the other states’ schools.
While state universities like UF and FSU look good by producing grads in demand by firms all over the country, a state college’s success depends on serving its local labor market. More than 90% of the 2014-15 state college grads are either working in Florida, with an average wage of $42,500, or continuing on to a university to finish a baccalaureate degree. Local employers consistently give the state colleges high marks for responsiveness.
The FSC schools serve more than 855,000 students, and for minority students in Florida, they’re a gateway to higher education. Miami Dade, Broward and Valencia colleges all rank in the top 10 in the country in the number of Hispanic students earning degrees. Miami Dade, Broward, Florida State College in Jacksonville and Valencia were in the top 10 in the number of degrees earned by African-American students.
State colleges also serve as a pipeline for students to move on to a university after earning their associate’s degree — 51% of the juniors and seniors at Florida’s universities in 2016 completed their first two years at a state college. Top majors: Business, health sciences, life science and engineering.
The state college grads do as well at the universities as the students who started at the university. And the state college grads help the universities in another way: Some kids who start at a university drop out; state college students who enter in their junior year prop up the universities’ completion rates — helping the universities keep their performance-based funding.
State colleges have received significant national recognition. Since the prestigious Aspen Institute began honoring state colleges in 2011, Florida schools have dominated the competition. Valencia was honored as the best community college in the country that year; Santa Fe was No. 1 in 2015. Indian River and Broward were among the top 10 finalists this year, and 12 other Florida schools were in Aspen’s top 150. The recognition is a tribute to presidents like Sandy Shugart, Jackson Sasser, David Armstrong, Dennis Gallon (now retired) and Ed Massey, who have provided dynamic leadership for their schools.
About the only place you’ll hear discouraging words about the state colleges is in the Legislature, the Chief Enforcer of mediocrity in Florida. This past session, Senate President Joe Negron, a smart man, did a stupid thing, attempting unsuccessfully to restructure the governance of the college system but succeeding at cutting its budget by some $30 million. In Negron’s view, the colleges have overstepped their latitude in offering a handful of bachelor’s degrees in workforce-critical areas like business, information technology and nursing.
Never mind that the schools didn’t offer the degrees until the Legislature mandated it in 1999 because of critical shortages of baccalaureate-trained professionals. Never mind that the state colleges usually don’t seek to offer a bachelor’s unless they’re encouraged by a nearby university. Never mind that there’s a rigorous approval process. Never mind that only 7% of state college enrollment is baccalaureate-related. Never mind that most of the students who get bachelor’s degrees at state schools need to keep working and would probably never be able to spend two years finishing a bachelor’s at a university.
Negron, who is to be commended for leading the charge to make the state’s universities “elite,” ought to realize there’s room in Florida for more than one set of elite educational institutions. And the state’s business community needs to stop him if he tries to inflict more damage on the college system.
As innovations in technology drive changes in the workforce, the need for the state colleges — and their ability to respond quickly and nimbly — will only grow. In the meantime, they’re great reminders that Florida can do better than “good enough.”
Get Florida Trend's October magazine – print or digital. Select from these options:
* offer valid for new subscribers only