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.
Provided such recognition, not to mention the governor’s previous veto of a similar bill, it comes as a surprise that Senate Bill 540 (Community College Competitiveness Act of 2018) is up for hearing once again, proposing 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 Department of Education and Board of Governors, however, tells a different story.
All of our state colleges serve Floridians by offering high-quality, low-cost options to students who need more flexibility than perhaps what the state university system might be able to provide to that individual student. In a March 2015 analysis of data provided by DOE and the Board of Governors, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), the research arm of the Florida Legislature, profiled the typical student served by state colleges and universities, respectively. Just considering the age factor, 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 completion of an associate’s degree taking longer than two years could be a direct result of their part-time status.
Equally important to note is that 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% since state colleges began offering baccalaureate degrees.
With all considered, SB 540 emerges as a bill that misses the point or, as Florida House Post-Secondary Education Subcommittee Chairwoman Elizabeth Porter calls it, “a fix looking for a problem.” While the state college system leaves the rate of state university enrollments relatively untouched, its positive impact on a different end is clearly visible as 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 (DEO) identified 180-plus unique STEM career paths in our state, the majority of which can be supported by lower-cost, job-oriented engineering and technical degree programs offered by institutes like Broward College. As an example, this institute has actively recognized the necessity to enroll more women in nontraditional fields, including those focused on energy and the environment, areas that are seeing tremendous growth and need for women leadership in Florida. Broward College’s Environment Science bachelor’s program attained a National Science Foundation S-STEM grant where 83% of the scholarship winners are women.
With the cornerstone that is our state college system, it is no wonder that Porter has described limitations on state colleges as “moving backwards.”
LILA A. JABER, TALLAHASSEE
Editor’s note: Lila A. Jaber is founder of the Florida’s Women in Energy Leadership Forum (FWELF).