CLEARWATER — Calling for better value and results in higher education, Gov. Rick Scott challenged Florida's state colleges Monday to offer $10,000 bachelor's degrees.
The first to rise to the challenge: St. Petersburg College. Scott made his announcement on SPC's Clearwater campus.
"Our goal should be that if you go to school and you work, you shouldn't have to end up with debt and you should be able to get a job when you finish," he said.
Scott's pitch came without an offer of additional state higher education funding. Instead, he told colleges to "find innovative ways" to bring down the price.
Of the 28 state colleges — they used to be called community colleges — 22 offer some four-year bachelor's degrees. Achieving that degree costs just over $13,000 for students entering without credits or scholarships.
Some college leaders said each college likely will fashion its own $10,000 degrees in workforce-oriented fields.
"To just create one because we can do it doesn't accomplish much," said Joe Pickens, president of St. Johns River State College in Palatka and chair of the Florida College System's Council of Presidents. "To answer the governor's challenge in a meaningful way is to survey the needs of the community we serve and come up with something that meets that need."
But some critics say the challenge reflects Scott's failure to prioritize higher education. In a press release, the state Democratic Party accused Scott of trying to turn Florida state colleges into "the Walmart of education."
For Scott's plan to work, the Florida Legislature would need to give state colleges the right to charge different tuition rates for different degrees.
While educators say it's possible to create $10,000 degree programs without extra state money, more would help.
"The Legislature can create a much more fertile environment for this to happen," Pickens said, citing years of state education budget cuts.
State colleges would need to create or redesign curricula to fit the $10,000 bill. Seven have already identified possible degree programs in information technology, business and organization management, education and engineering technology.
St. Petersburg College plans to pilot its first $10,000 degree in technology management and development by next fall, said SPC president Bill Law. Manufacturing and law enforcement degree programs could follow.
Law mentioned online courses, dual high school/college enrollment and other forms of accelerated credit, such as military training or certificates, as ways to trim the cost of a four-year degree. He also placed some of the burden on students to power through in four years.
In Tampa Bay, neither Hillsborough Community College nor Pasco-Hernando Community College offer bachelor's degrees. PHCC expects to launch its first ones in nursing and applied sciences in 2014, but a spokeswoman said it's too early to gauge the effect of the governor's challenge.
In Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry issued a similar challenge last year, several schools have begun $10,000 degree programs. The Austin American-Statesman newspaper reported that cost reductions often came from a push for more college credits earned during high school or monetary rewards for good grades and punctual graduation.
The Texas governor was among supporters for Scott's challenge. Another was Randy Hanna, chancellor of the Florida College System.
"Affordability should not be a bad word in higher education," he said.
Scott's challenge also received backing from almost every member of the state Board of Education — except vice chair Roberto Martinez.
A cheap four-year degree "will undermine the quality and value of the education, hurting our students' chances to compete successfully in our 21st Century economy," he wrote to Scott.
Increasing college funding, Martinez said, would be a better way to decrease students' costs without sacrificing quality.
Long before Scott's announcement, the newly installed leaders of the Legislature declared higher education reform a priority. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, say they want to retool the system so it better prepares students for the workforce.
Weatherford says the state spends between $65,000 and $100,000 to educate a student for four years in the Florida higher education system.
"Most parents don't know that," Weatherford said recently. "So we have got to do a better job of explaining to people what it actually costs to educate a student at a four-year university."
Gaetz, a former elected school superintendent for Okaloosa County, said one of his top two priorities is to "lash" the higher ed system more closely to the realities of the Florida economy.
"Half of the graduates from the 2011 graduating class from U.S. colleges and universities are unemployed or they're underemployed," Gaetz said. "We have to have educated Floridians whose skills allow them to compete for those jobs."
Scott has recently opposed tuition increases for state colleges and state universities, even as Florida's rates remain lower than the national average. State universities have faced $300 million in funding cuts.
In addition to the $10,000 challenge, Scott suggested performance-based financial incentives for institutions, measured against the percentage of graduates who find work or pursue further studies, graduates' salaries and the average cost of degrees.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.