Paul Valentine and the other college students in Room 209 don't have a football team to root for. Or a sticky-floored bar across the street that offers Thursday night drink specials. But don't let that fool you.
They may be the face of the future for higher education in Florida.
Valentine, a registered nurse from Seminole, is earning a bachelor's degree in nursing at St. Petersburg College, a community college long associated with two-year degrees. He could have pursued the same degree at the University of South Florida, but SPC was closer, cheaper and more convenient. And as far as he's concerned, there's no question about quality.
"I feel like we get a better education here," Valentine, 25, said last week during a break in class at the Caruth Health Education Center in Pinellas Park.
Under a potentially sweeping plan gaining steam in the Legislature, more community colleges could start offering bachelor's degrees to students like Valentine. And if they do, they'll be using St. Petersburg College as the model.
SPC had no bachelor's degree programs in 2001. Now it has 20, with five more on the way.
This spring, 2,700 students are enrolled in them.
"The closest thing there is to a state college in Florida is St. Pete College," said state Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, chairman of the House Schools & Learning Council and a top supporter of the idea.
The notion in a nutshell: Convert Florida's 28 community colleges into "state colleges." Let them continue offering two-year degrees, with an emphasis on local work force needs. But allow some of them to morph into hybrids that offer bachelor's degrees, too, especially in high-needs areas like teaching and nursing.
The payoff: More Florida students getting four-year degrees. Less strain on the state university system. And, thanks to tuition that is 30 percent lower than state universities, big savings to students and taxpayers.
The idea of a new tier in Florida higher education isn't new. Different versions have been floating around for years. But the latest appears to have solid support.
Gov. Charlie Crist has offered encouragement, as has Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state university system. Last week, the Senate version of the plan won unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans on the Senate higher education committee and a nod of approval from all 28 community college presidents.
"We're in a transition state in how we do higher education in Florida," said state Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg.
"It's an easier incentive to turn a community college to offering bachelor's degrees than to get a university" to shift attention away from producing more doctorates, he said.
That isn't to say the idea is free of concerns.
One is context: The proposal for a state college system comes in the midst of a bruising battle over the future of the state university system. The Legislature and the Florida Board of Governors are fighting in court over which entity has the power to set tuition. And lawmakers led by Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, are pushing hard for a constitutional amendment that would strip the board of much of its independence.
Then there's quality: Community colleges still suffer from a perception that they aren't as academically rigorous as traditional four-year institutions. And many people assume educational value hinges on cost. The nursing programs at USF and SPC are both fully accredited, but a full class load for a bachelor's at USF is $1,730 per semester, compared to $1,214 at SPC.
Also, there's turf: Currently, eight community colleges together offer a smattering of bachelor's degrees. But if more get into the game and the process to establish new degrees is streamlined, some observers fear they will step on university toes.
"There's always that potential," Justice said. "That's where the (higher education) system and the Legislature will have to maintain some oversight."
The Legislature gave SPC authority to offer bachelor's degrees in 2001.
Nearly half of the college's bachelor's degree programs are in teaching. But SPC has quietly expanded into other areas, including banking, dental hygiene, and orthotics and prosthetics. SPC officials say they have talked with their USF counterparts before proceeding with any of them and will continue to do so in the future.
"Every one of the programs is off the charts," said SPC president Carl Kuttler Jr. "It's been one of the most successful ventures in higher ed in America."
In 2004, SPC awarded 123 bachelor's degrees. Last year, it awarded 517.
The bachelor's in nursing has been especially successful, with 560 students currently enrolled, up from 138 five years ago.
On Tuesday, 25 of them were in Room 209 of the health education center.
Laptops, Starbucks, a professor with a Ph.D. — it could have been a college class anywhere.
Then again, the students' average age was 35. The vast majority were working full time. And it was obvious from the back and forth that they were not the remedial students so often tied to the image of community colleges or the fresh-faced students at more traditional colleges who often lack life and work experience.
"Our job is to do no harm and to do right," one student said during a discussion on ethics that ranged from end-of-life care to sleeping with patients.
Josie Drago, 49, a home health care nurse, said she wants to get her bachelor's in nursing so she could then move on to a master's degree and a job as a nurse practitioner.
The Clearwater resident said she considered USF but thought twice when told she would need to take several refresher courses in science, since it had been a decade since she took any.
"I asked, 'What part of the human anatomy has changed in the past 10 years?' " she said.
SPC only required she take one refresher course, she said.
Another big factor: "Money," she said, rubbing her fingers together in the air.
Many details about the proposed state college system have yet to be worked out, including the process for establishing new degree programs, the academic and geographic gaps that need to be filled, and a funding model.
The Senate bill would create a task force to recommend answers by 2009. It also calls for a pilot project with three community colleges: Indian River, Okaloosa-Walton and SPC.
In one form or another, a new tier in higher education that uses SPC as a model "will come to pass," Kuttler said. "The question is how."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.