by Lila A. Jaber
With the unveiling of his final budget proposal, Gov. Rick Scott is aiming to restore $30 million previously cut from the Florida College System, along with adding a $30 million increase. This effort not only highlights his support of higher education, it is a tip of the hat to the contributions from our state college system to Florida’s economic strength.
So it comes as a surprise that SB 540 — “Community College Competitiveness Act of 2018” — is up for hearing once again. The bill proposes changes to a college system that works in support of Florida’s nontraditional students and technical workforce.
As one requirement, SB 540 asks our state colleges to graduate students within two years to avoid any “duplication” of the mission being served by state universities. Data collected by the Florida DOE and Board of Governors, however, tells a different story.
All our state colleges serve Floridians by offering high-quality, low-cost options to students who need more flexibility than what the state university system might be able to provide. In a March 2015 analysis of data provided by DOE, the Board of Governors and the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability — the research arm of the Florida Legislature — profiled the typical students served by state colleges and universities.
The diversity of options and affordability offered by state colleges attracts students of or above the age of 25 for every three out of four students. Contrast with 73 percent of upper-division university students being under the age of 25 in Florida state universities.
The majority of state college students are enrolled part-time, employed full-time, and eligible for need-based grants, returning to school to gain additional, targeted job skills. The data appears to indicate that these students take longer than two years to complete an associate’s degree as a direct result of their part-time status.
Equally important: The flexibility and affordability of programs at state colleges has in no way deterred attendance rates at Florida’s state universities. In fact, it appears that state university enrollments have increased by 54.5 percent since state colleges began offering baccalaureate degrees.
With all considered, SB 540 emerges as a bill that misses the point. While the state college system leaves the rate of state university enrollments relatively untouched, its positive impact on a different end is clearly visible. It provides support not only to Florida’s nontraditional students, but to its economy, thereby bridging the gap in STEM education.
In early 2016, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity identified 180+ unique STEM career paths in our state, the majority of which can be supported by lower-cost, job-oriented engineering and technical degree programs.
I urge the Legislature to continue to honor the contributions of our state college system by voting against these bills.