Leading Question

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2009

Lars Hafner, the president of State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota (formerly MCC), ruffled a few academic feathers in late spring when he and his board of trustees announced they would be seeking to add six more baccalaureate degrees. Only two months earlier, SCF received approval to offer a B.S. in nursing, the first four-year degree offering at the former community college, catching local USF folks, who could potentially fight for the same students and dollars, off guard. Is SCF stepping into USF Sarasota-Manatee’s territory?

Absolutely not, say both Hafner and USF Sarasota-Manatee Chancellor Arthur Guilford. Apparently the main problem was that media got wind of the proposal to add new degrees before Hafner had a chance to speak to Guilford. Since then both men have begun to meet regularly, Guilford says, and have spoken about the details of the proposed bachelors’ programs to avoid duplication.  “We’re both working very hard to improve communication,” Guilford says.

But a larger question looms for higher education in Florida. What does it mean when Florida’s community colleges begin to expand their mission to four-year degrees? Already half of the state’s community colleges offer four-year degrees and many of them began within the past five years.

University presidents are evenly split on the issue, says John Delaney, interim chancellor of the Board of Governors for the state university system, which oversees Florida’s 11 public universities.  Delaney is also president of the University of North Florida.  “Some have no problem, and others are really threatened by it. That set of university presidents would view many of the degrees as costly duplication, unnecessary competition and a waste of tax dollars,” Delaney says. The major worry for all the universities, he adds, would be competing for students in a major that is under-enrolled.  Teaching programs, for example, are currently having trouble attracting students in both Florida and nationwide.

Statewide, four more community colleges have similar plans “in the hopper” and the trend could well expand to all 28 within the next 10 years, says Michael Brawer, executive director of the Florida Association of Community Colleges.  With community college enrollment nearing one million full and part-time—full-time alone is about 400,000—and growing 9 percent to 20 percent per year, depending on the institution, the colleges are attracting more and more traditional students who aren’t being accepted at Florida’s increasingly competitive  university programs.  “It’s a natural segue for what the markets are bearing,” Brawer says.   

With USF Sarasota-Manatee’s enrollment up more than 15 percent, says Guilford (and SCF’s growth rate of 10 percent last year), there are now plenty of students to fill Sarasota’s college classrooms. Both locally and across the state, the poor economy and scarcity of jobs is driving students to higher education in droves. The new G.I. Bill’s enhanced benefits, which take effect in August, are opening doors to more institutions for vets who have served since Sept. 11, 2001.

Rumblings might still be heard from USF and Florida’s regulators if SCF proposes degree programs that duplicate USF Sarasota-Manatee offerings.  As long as SCF delineates carefully and communicates with its long-term partner, educators agree it’s a win-win for students and the community.

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