Is an associate's degree good enough? Florida community colleges are playing an ever-increasing role in pushing students toward bachelor's degrees.
Administrators at Florida's 28 community colleges say they are more focused than ever on helping students progress toward a bachelor's degree. The need for more conveniently located programs, along with an admissions logjam at the state's 10 universities, has pushed community colleges beyond traditional "2+2" articulation agreements.
Ahead of the Wave
Some community colleges have chosen to partner with four-year universities, creating university centers on the community-college campuses. The centers offer a university alternative for students who don't find it practical to commute or move to a university campus. And, with the blessing of the state's education board, legislation enacted in 1999 has prompted other community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in fields with proven manpower needs. Teaching, nursing, technology and law enforcement programs, in particular, are springing up to fill those voids.
"Florida continues to grow like crazy," said Dr. J. David Armstrong Jr., state chancellor for community colleges and workforce education programs. "Many of our universities, especially the ones that are popular with students, are maxed out.... One of the challenges is, overall, how are we going to address the continued growth?"
Florida has put itself at the forefront of the national college transition debate. A statewide articulation agreement guarantees state university admission to any student who earns an associate's degree with at least a 2.0 grade-point average. A common course-numbering system helps the students know exactly what courses they need well in advance, easing transitions from two-year to four-year institutions, said Sunny Kristin, an education policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"They did it way before most states were doing that, in terms of requiring the community colleges and higher education group to have a [transfer] policy," she said. "Nationally, it's becoming the most common route to baccalaureates because it costs significantly less." She added that this is particularly germane for low-income students.
The Education Commission of the States recognized Florida last month with its Frank Newman Award for State Innovation, an award the state shared with Utah. Among other factors, ECS cited Florida's teacher preparation initiatives and "one of the country's best-engineered transfer arrangements between two- and four-year institutions."
Charging for Slow Degree Completion?
Although implementing effective coursework--specifically coursework that leads students to a bachelor's degree--remains one of the most relevant long-term issues for Florida, many policymakers are focusing on how to move students through the current system more quickly.
A recently passed bill awaiting signature from Gov. Jeb Bush at presstime would impose a 75 percent tuition hike for credit hours above 120 percent of the amount needed to earn a given degree, with exemptions for internships, certificate programs, remedial or English as a Second Language classes and courses dropped due to "medical or personal hardship."
The Florida Association of Community Colleges' Council of Presidents this month voiced its opposition to the bill, although FACC members have said that more might be done to counsel students earlier to bring focus to their studies. Chairman Sanford Shugart, president of Valencia Community College in Orlando, penned a letter to Gov. Bush outlining the council's objections and urging a veto, "while acknowledging an underlying legitimate public policy issue, noting that this legislation is so poorly written that it will surely have many unintended consequences to the detriment of Florida's students and colleges."
In a telephone interview, Shugart said students are taking longer to finish their studies for a variety of reasons that could include cutbacks in federal financial aid and shifts from grants to loan programs. "There hasn't been a whole lot of discussion or inquiry, frankly, on why they're taking longer," he said. "The bill's supporters just assume that they're deadbeat students who are wasting the state's money and their time.
"At a time when the country and this state in particular are going to face deep shortages for the next 25 years of highly skilled people, this is not the time to drive a stake in the heart of lifelong learning," Shugart said. "If there are meaningful incentives for students to pursue their degrees more quickly, let's do it. This is entirely punitive. It's an upside-down approach. There's no carrot. It's all stick."
The purpose of the bill is not to punish students or to save money, but rather to ensure access for more students, countered Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamont Springs, the bill's sponsor. He said the Council of Presidents and other opponents "are protecting the people who are already in school, instead of looking out for the student who can't get into school because somebody else is taking that space from them.
"This is not about harming any student who has a legitimate reason to be in school. It is about maybe having some people reconsider their options, and allowing other students to get into school," Constantine said. "We made every exception that the universities and community colleges asked us to make.... For them to go out and say, 'Veto, veto, veto,' I'm sorry, they have to do some soul-searching here."
Armstrong said the governor was reviewing the bill and hopes to work with colleges to better counsel community-college students, who must take at least 60 credit hours to receive an associate's degree.
"Every student runs into [problems with] classes, family issues, job issues, that will have an impact on their academic careers," he said. "We don't think students ought to be limited to 60 hours. But somewhere between 60 and 99 hours is where the institutions can and should be able to have an impact."
Victoria Hernandez, director of governmental affairs for Miami Dade College, branded the bill as "a very negative piece of legislation for our community-college students," particularly those from poor or working-class families who are the first in their households to attend college.
"In order to succeed, they need to develop certain study habits, they need to understand the rigors of college work," she said. Basic courses "will start filling up the bucket that will eventually start leading to excess [hours]."
Hernandez said the ESL exemption would be helpful but sounded a skeptical note on the "medical or personal hardship" clause. "How you and I may define 'hardship' may differ, and the law is vague on it," she said, "The most fundamental flaw in this bill is that it doesn't promote learning. It stifles learning. It puts a penalty on taking more courses. If a student starts down one path and decides to switch majors and go down another and pursue something else, what is wrong with having learned all those things?"
Dr. Dale F. Campbell, an education professor who heads the Community College Leadership Consortium at the University of Florida, sees the excess hours issue as being tied to the larger issue of demographics. "Florida is one of the states that has the capacity issues associated with this generation in terms of students," he said. "There's a real concern and emphasis among state policymakers about encouraging individuals to graduate on time.
"It limits your time for career exploration or discovery in terms of what it is you intend to do with your major," Campbell said. "It's putting a higher priority on getting students through rather than providing support for that exploration. It's just putting individuals on notice that you can do that, but ... you're going to pay more."
The bill could have a positive impact by prompting schools to improve their counseling of students in their first couple of years of school, said David Harrison, vice provost for regional campuses at Central Florida University.
"It does encourage us all to partner with the students as early as possible and let them understand the longer-term context of their decisions," said Harrison, former vice president of educational programs and chief academic officer at Seminole Community College. "It also provides an opportunity for us to be more precise with our schedules ... to make sure that students get what they need when they need it. It can provide a discipline for both the students and the institution."
But, he added, "Part of being in college is to explore different opportunities. That's especially true for those who are the first in their family to go to college.... Time will tell what impact it's going to have on that aspect of higher education."
If Gov. Bush signs the bill, Florida would be the fourth state to enact a surcharge, Kristin said. North Carolina passed a bill in 1993 that charged students 25 percent more for credits above 110 percent of the minimum for their degree. Texas followed suit in 1999, charging higher tuition when a student takes 45 hours or more above the minimum. And the University of Wisconsin System board of regents adopted a policy in December 2002--not prompted by legislation--that doubled tuition when students reach above either 165 credits or 30 credits over their program requirements.
Whatever the final result may be on the excess hours legislation, the broader issue of access to bachelor's degrees will continue to resound within Florida's community colleges. The legislation that has enabled community colleges to begin offering bachelor's degrees in limited instances has broadened students' options--and heated up the debate on how best to provide access.
Pilot legislation that applied only to St. Petersburg College came about because other options, such as university campus centers, were not making nearly enough of a dent in Pinellas County's teaching and nursing shortages, said former state Sen. Don Sullivan.
"We weren't really thinking of starting some big revolution. It was really just trying to solve the problem for my particular county," said Sullivan, who will retire in July as vice president for innovation and development at SPC but will continue as a consultant to the school. "It was only afterward that it became apparent that this was a great way to solve a statewide problem."
Although they draw the most attention and create the most controversy, four-year programs comprise less than 5 percent of the community colleges' overall budget and enrollment, Armstrong said. "It's a minor part in size and scope, but it's significant in terms of mission and all those other things," he said.
It's a significant problem in the eyes of Dr. James Wattenbarger, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida who has studied community colleges and believes allowing them to offer bachelor's degrees is a lose-lose proposition for the schools and their students. "The community colleges offer a second-class baccalaureate degree. It'll never be anything but a second-class degree," he said, due to "limited" resources, programs and faculties. And "it forces the president and his staff to make choices in the allocation of funds, which are limited anyway." He added that "the universities can take care of it."
But Sullivan said universities have been asked to fill such gaps. "We did, in a sense, offer them the job, and they refused to take it," he said. "The universities have fewer people in education programs than 10 years ago. The universities have not shown they can respond to these needs. We've found the community colleges can. Why would you not let them? ... Why would I want to limit the amount of education available to students who are place-bound? Do you want teachers? Do you want nurses?"
According to Jim Jacobs, associate director for community college operations at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, the four-year programs raise major questions. "It's a major undertaking," he said. "Are these two-year institutions that have four-year programs, or are they four-year institutions that have two-year programs? What kind of hybrid institutions are being developed?"
Meeting Workforce Needs
Armstrong said he's confident the mission of community colleges will not be compromised. "It is not converting community colleges to four-year institutions," he said. "We've made this clear in statute and in every conversation we have. They have to have open doors.... We have granted specific authority for specific degrees--not an open-ended opportunity for those institutions to offer any bachelor's degree they want, but case by case, with a primary focus on the need for addressing [workforce development]."
The state board's standard contract requires documentation that programs will not "cannibalize" existing colleges' programs, Armstrong said. "We see no evidence of that happening," he said. "We do not want to see that happen." And the programs will not cannibalize university offerings, either, he added, noting that, for example, the state's four-year campuses produce about 5,600 teachers per year while demographic projections hold Florida will need about 29,000 new teachers annually in the coming years.
The state has granted authority to create teacher education programs at St. Petersburg, Miami Dade and, most recently, the rural Chipola College on the Florida Panhandle, Armstrong said.
"We're very optimistic and hopeful that these programs are going to help contribute to addressing that need. At St. Pete and Miami Dade, within the next three to five years, they will be producing as many teachers in those critical high-demand areas, specifically math and science secondary education, and special education, as our entire university system."
Another positive outcome cited by Armstrong: "The overwhelming majority of minority students are at these community colleges," with 95 nationalities represented at Miami Dade alone.
Several universities produce teachers for Dade County but provide less than half of what's needed, Hernandez said, in part because they don't offer as much flexibility for nontraditional students to take classes in the evening, weekend or part time. "Our niche are people who don't fit the traditional mold," she said. "We feel we're not a threat to the universities. There's more than enough [students] to go around."
Echoing Armstrong, Hernandez added that programs are not simply granted willy-nilly. "You have to document that there's an unmet need, that there's jobs out there that are waiting to be filled by folks with certain bachelor's degrees in a particular area, and for whatever reasons the universities are not filling the gap," she said. While Miami Dade has university programs on its campus and articulations with more than 80 four-year schools, "If you know the culture of a university, a lot of times the professors don't want to go out to some community-college campus three times a week in the evenings."
St. Petersburg now has 13 four-year programs spanning such fields as public safety administration, veterinary technology, and nursing and dental hygiene, said Tom Furlong, the school's senior vice president for baccalaureate programs and a former state vice chancellor under Armstrong. But the school has not created such programs without investigating other avenues first, he said. "We look first for the [university] partnership possibility," Furlong said. "If either we can't get a good partner, or it just makes more sense to do it locally, we start a program ourselves.... We still send most of our students to universities."
The option to offer four-year programs is especially attractive to a rural school like Chipola, said Kitty Myers, the associate vice president of instruction and baccalaureate program development, whose school offers math and science education programs. "In isolated, rural areas like ours, we've never had access, and that is one thing that needs to be corrected," she said. "It really is all about access and the students who are being left behind."
Matching Demand With Quality
One potential problem that remains unanswered is how well community-college bachelor's degrees will pave the path for graduates to later pursue a master's degree at a university, Campbell said.
"They should start forging those articulation agreements now, so students have choices, rather than finding out they may be limited if it's not something they worked out ahead of time," he said.
Harrison, of Central Florida, said his school has joint facilities on the campuses of Brevard, Daytona Beach and Lake Sumpter through which students can gain a bachelor's degree without ever setting foot on the main campus in Orlando. "That's a model that's worked well over time," he said, adding that community colleges considering doing it all themselves must take into account several issues.
"It's more than getting the degree approved, and it's more than bringing the faculty on board," Harrison said. "You've got career placement issues," plus the graduate school possibilities raised by Campbell. "If the community college is best positioned to offer it, and they've evaluated thoughtfully other considerations, I don't see anything wrong with it." Harrison added, "I'm speaking very much in the abstract."
Colleges offering the four-year programs say they've done their homework and made the necessary adjustments. Hiring faculty is "the main one," Furlong said, and "in our nursing program, for example, all five [professors] have Ph.D.s." Among the other changes have been adding extra counselors and librarians, he said.
Accreditation standards require a minimum number of faculty with doctorate degrees, plus other changes ranging from beefing up advising resources to upgrading science labs, Hernandez said.
"We had such a tremendous demand for teachers and students who wanted to pursue that degree that we moved as quickly as we could," taking a year from approval to start-up, she said.
Community colleges must ensure that Wattenbarger's fears of second-class programs do not come to pass--and to do so, they will have to make changes in their regular ways of doing business, Campbell said. He cited an example of one unnamed school having difficulty hiring for a senior position due to salary concerns.
"Once an institution commits to that mission to provide that program, they should be prepared in those instances, if they're going to compete in that league, you' re going to have to provide the capacity," he said. "That may mean bringing in people at a higher salary than you normally would in your associate's degree programs."
Community-College Transfer Students Attending Public Universities Fall 2000 Fall 2001 Number Percent Number Percent Florida A&M University 924 1.3 828 1.2 Florida Atlantic University 7,967 11.3 8,462 11.8 Florida Gulf Coast University 1,173 1.7 1,233 1.7 Florida International University 8,880 12.6 8,988 12.5 Florida State University 10,382 14.8 10,347 14.4 New College of Florida 0 0.0 81 0.1 University of Central Florida 14,091 20.0 14,702 20.4 University of Florida 6,212 8.8 5,909 8.2 University of North Florida 4,983 7.1 5,324 1.4 University of South Florida 12,922 18.4 13,185 18.3 University of West Florida 2,767 3.9 2,860 4.0 Totals 70,301 100 71,919 100 Fall 2002 Number Percent Florida A&M University 798 1.1 Florida Atlantic University 8,694 11.8 Florida Gulf Coast University 1,370 1.9 Florida International University 9,277 12.6 Florida State University 10,646 14.4 New College of Florida 77 0.1 University of Central Florida 15,707 21.3 University of Florida 6,088 8.2 University of North Florida 5,351 7.2 University of South Florida 12,942 17.5 University of West Florida 2,944 4.0 Totals 73,894 100.0 SOURCE: FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, THE FACT BOOK--REPORT FOR THE FLORIDA COMMUNITY COLLEGE SYSTEM, FEBRUARY 2005 Enrollment by Ethnicity--Fall 2004 Resident Alien 2.4% (9,110) Unknown 2.3% (8,583) American Indian 0.4% (1,524) Asian 2.7% (10,171 White 56% (209,805) Hispanic 19.1% (71,470) Black 17.1% (64,080) * Calculated by COC. Note: Due to rounding, percentages may not add to 100. Note: Table made from pie chart. SOURCE: FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCAIION, THE FACT BOOK REPORT FOR THE FLORIDA COMMUNITY COLLEGE SYSTEM, FEBRUARY 2005