Pasco Hernando Community College should begin 2013 in the cat bird's seat. Its fifth campus, the Porter campus in the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel, is under construction and is scheduled to open next January. The college plans to offer its first bachelor's degrees in nursing and applied sciences in 2014, and its full-time enrollment grew 40 percent over a three-year period during the down economy.
But, like all of Florida's higher education system, the college is short-changed on the state's investment. The final installment of money needed to open the Porter campus, $6.9 million, has been excised from the state budget for two consecutive years and, on a percentage basis, PHCC is the lowest-funded of all 28 colleges in annual state appropriations.
Taking money away from another college for PHCC's benefit isn't the answer. Boosting the overall investment to the state college system is the correct track for the Legislature.
The state colleges are seeking a three-year $360 million budget increase. That proposal includes $22 million this year for the lowest-funded schools like PHCC to ensure all Floridians have access to a high-quality postsecondary education. Without more equitable funding, PHCC faces limitations on its ability to grow, hire new faculty and offer customized training.
But the statewide funding suggestion also includes nearly $18 million in the coming year in lieu of a 1.9 percent tuition increase tied to the consumer price index. It's problematic. Students, too, should be willing to invest more in their education, which remains a substantial value compared to tuition at four-year universities.
At PHCC, the college's board of trustees wisely squirreled away money to cover the personnel costs of opening the Porter campus, which is expected to require up to 30 employees to serve the equivalent of 700 full-time students in its first year. If the Wesley Chapel location follows the trend of the Spring Hill campus that opened in 2010, the student population will grow nearly 80 percent by its second year.
Eventually the Porter campus is expected to be the largest of the PHCC's five sites because of its location along the State Road 56 growth corridor and because it will attract students that in prior years would have traveled south to the Brandon campus of Hillsborough Community College. PHCC now serves approximately 17,000 students in all of its programs.
It is an impressive yet troublesome number for the college that just celebrated its 40th anniversary. Its student population runs counter to the economy — fewer people working in a down economy means higher enrollment and demands for retraining at the college. And PHCC and all the state colleges must absorb those new students at the same time the state budget resources are being cut.
The system is underpriced and underfunded. Florida and its students should be willing to invest more in higher education and the Legislature can start by boosting the funding formula that now leaves PHCC looking up at its peers.