Florida's colleges and universities must begin producing more graduates if the state is to stay on the economic cutting edge, the head of one of the state's most influential business groups told education leaders Thursday.
More important, those graduates must be properly prepared to hit the ground running.
"That degree or certificate has to mean something," said Barney Bishop, president and chief executive officer of Associated Industries of Florida. "If all you're going to do is teach kids to think inside the box, we've already lost the race with Asia."
Bishop's remarks came at the first in a series of meetings of the Florida College Task Force, a group charged with making recommendations to the Legislature for the transition of some community colleges to four-year degree granting colleges.
Among those on the 11-member task force is University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and Katherine Johnson, president of Pasco-Hernando Community College.
Bishop and other business leaders, including Chris Hart, president of Workforce Florida, and Susan Pareigis, president of the Council of 100, said they were optimistic about creating a new tier in Florida higher education but warned that there could be pitfalls.
"I'm very concerned we'll start cannibalizing each other," Pareigis said. "I sure would hate to create more of what we have and still have gaps in what we need."
Legislators, stressing the need for greater access to higher education, began talking last spring about turning some of Florida's 28 community colleges into "state colleges" that would continue to offer two-year degrees with an emphasis on local work force needs.
The colleges also would offer bachelor's degrees in high-needs areas like teaching and nursing.
On the plus side, more Florida students would earn four-year degrees, paying tuition that is 30 percent lower than at state universities. But among the details to be worked out by the task force is how the new degree programs would be distributed and how they would be funded.
If done correctly, Genshaft said, the new model has the potential to change the face of post-secondary education in Florida. She pointed to the relationship between USF and St. Petersburg College, which began offering baccalaureate degrees in 2001, as an example of a good working partnership between a state university and a four-year college.
"We're not offering the same things, which shows there's enough room for everyone," Genshaft said. "We can meet the needs of students and business both as long as we work collaboratively."
The task force's next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 2.
Donna Winchester can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8413.