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House leaders push for 'state college' system

TALLAHASSEE — House leaders, stressing the need for greater access to higher education, want to turn some of Florida's 28 community colleges into "state colleges" offering four-year bachelor's degrees.

The proposal, pushed by House Speaker-designate Ray Sansom and fellow Republican Joe Pickens of Palatka, also would create an oversight board for community colleges that emphasizes undergraduate education.

The effort comes as the Senate pushes forward with a dramatic overhaul in the way Florida's 11 state universities and K-12 schools are governed.

The House proposal could face opposition, however, from some community college presidents who like things as they are. And private colleges that already offer bachelor's degrees on community college campuses also might resist the idea.

Pickens said he won't have the proposal finalized until next week, but an early draft floating around the Capitol calls for a pilot project that turns three yet-to-be-chosen community colleges into "state colleges" — a concept endorsed by the governor and the state university system chancellor. The state would set aside $750,000 in general revenue and $50,000 in one-time trust fund cash next year for the initiative.

The House concept is also incorporated into their latest version of a proposed constitutional amendment (SLC2) that overhauls education governance by reinstating an elected Cabinet-level education commissioner and stripping the Board of Governors of most of its authority over the 11 state universities.

The House would create, in addition to the watered-down Board of Governors that Senate President Ken Pruitt wants, a Florida College Board of citizens who oversee the "Florida College System."

The system would be composed of two- and four-year institutions that grant undergraduate degrees only, according to the proposal, which goes before the House Schools and Learning Council today.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Thursday he will shepherd the proposal through the Senate.

Seven community colleges, including St. Petersburg College and Miami Dade College in South Florida, already offer a limited number of four-year degrees. Indian River Community College is about to become the eighth.

Pickens said St. Petersburg College "would be the classic example of what we envision."

In 2001, the college got state approval to offer four-year degrees in high-demand areas, including teaching and nursing. St. Petersburg College just graduated its 1,000th bachelor's degree student, said provost Lars A. Hafner.

"We want to provide more access, more work force-oriented degrees in areas like teaching and nursing," said Pickens. "It would build on what we are already doing, but in a more organized, less piecemeal fashion."

California has a system with two-year community colleges, four-year state colleges and comprehensive research universities like the University of California at Berkeley. Pickens said he and other House leaders have studied that model.

Gov. Charlie Crist told the Times he spoke last year with California chancellor Charles Reed, a former Florida universities chancellor, about "a tiered system."

"One of the difficulties we face because of our revenues may be enrollment at the traditional four-year institutions," Crist said. "So if we can find a way to alleviate that problem through our great community college network, that's a possibility that exists."

The existing 11 state universities are poised to cut enrollment by thousands of seats in the next few years, thanks to a state budget crisis that reduced their budgets by more than $100-million this year. The cuts promise to be even worse next year, when lawmakers need to shave the state budget by at least $2.5-billion.

House leaders say the state can ensure all Florida students still have a chance to earn a much-needed bachelor's degree by offering more of them at the community college level.

The Board of Governors supports bachelor's-only institutions to meet the state's need for a better-trained work force.

"We need more access," chancellor Mark Rosenberg said. "We've said for a while there ought to be an intermediate layer."

A board consultant recommended last year the establishment of such colleges.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

House leaders push for 'state college' system 03/06/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 7, 2008 1:24am]
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