St. Petersburg College applauds the leadership of the St. Petersburg Times, as shown in a recent editorial, in attempting to impel stronger state policy to guide the growth of our colleges and universities. Trust me, the view from inside is no clearer than from the outside.
But the nuances on how best to meet state needs are more than just institutional aspirations — real needs are going unmet, while the responsiveness of some institutions is categorized in the editorial as being "on the hunt for students."
Ouch! Some additional facts can help us view the challenge and emerging responses in a different light.
In 2001, in response to studies showing Florida ranked 47th out of 50 states in bachelor's degree access (Pinellas ranking 67 of 67 Florida counties), the Florida Legislature authorized the evolution of SPC to offer bachelor's degrees. State policy reviews also cited the high cost of Florida moving to a three-tier system of higher education.
In response, St. Petersburg Junior College embarked on a new opportunity to provide access to baccalaureate education in a narrowly defined, community-responsive inventory of programs: "work force" baccalaureates. These include teacher education, nursing/allied health, information technology, public policy, business and public safety. Our orthotics and prosthetics degree is one of just seven in the nation, and the teacher of the year for Pinellas County, Tracy Staley, is an SPC College of Education graduate.
We offer none of the most popular baccalaureate majors for traditional university students, such as psychology, political science or sociology. All of our efforts are directed to helping adults get credentials that lead directly to employment. Enrollment for the coming fall semester in our 23 bachelor majors is running 18 percent ahead of last year, strong growth that mirrors the recent history of these programs.
To offer these programs, St. Petersburg College did extensive analysis of the work force needs of our community and the Tampa Bay region. Program proposals were developed with industry practitioners and reviewed by the college's board of trustees in every case. To avoid costly competition and duplication, we worked in full partnership with the University of South Florida and with USF St. Petersburg, as well as independent institutions that might be impacted by our new programs. The baccalaureate program proposals were vetted by the Florida Department of Education Division of State Colleges, and presentations were made to the State Board of Education and to the legislative appropriations committees on several occasions.
Such planning efforts may seem to be a "hodgepodge" at the state level, but the work looks pretty focused and purposeful from the local level. The results speak for themselves: More than 5,000 students will be enrolled in our baccalaureate programs this fall, reflecting the legendary responsiveness of St. Petersburg College. Our programs produced more than 1,000 bachelor's degree graduates in the academic year that just ended, bringing our total to 4,400 since inception.
By law, the state support for our baccalaureate program was set at 85 percent of the comparable support for university system programs — so we were cost-effective as soon as we started the programs. St. Petersburg College baccalaureate tuition will go up by 8 percent, pursuant to legislative directive. Where the college has greater discretion — in the associate degree and certificate programs — we'll raise tuition just 3 percent for the fall semester. In either case, tuition for our students is far lower than other public institutions and a long way from the 15 percent increases at the university level. For fall 2011, the upper division tuition at SPC was 43 percent lower than the comparable tuition at USF Tampa.
Here's the rub: Despite the fact that Floridians are enthusiastically seeking this new way to meet their educational needs, our colleagues at the Board of Governors feel strongly about doing things the way they have always been done. They believe it is in the best interest for the State University System to control all baccalaureate education despite the fact that it has been woefully unable to meet the state's needs in this regard. In fact, it is just a few short years ago that the official State University System position was a freeze on enrollment growth.
More importantly, the highest priority of the Board of Governors should be increasing the research and development capacities of our universities. This critical work, absolutely vital to keeping Florida competitive in the global economy, can be done only by world-class universities. The fixation by the Board of Governors in trying to control undergraduate classroom access is a distraction that needs to be resolved and set aside.
Bill Law is president of St. Petersburg College.