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The enrollment crunch

Creating four-year programs at some community colleges is an intriguing proposal for coping with the worsening enrollment crunch at Florida's nine public universities.

Some legislators and educators think such a move might be more cost-effective than simply expanding existing universities or building new ones. They see it as a way to tap the dormant four-year teaching potential at larger two-year institutions, such as St. Petersburg Jr. College.

But such change would bring obvious complications. It raises concerns about assuring the quality of upper-level programs at institutions unaccustomed to handling them. That in turn raises turf questions. Such programs would seem to stand a better chance if administered by the state Board of Regents, who are accustomed to managing upper-level institutions. But the state Division of Community Colleges is unlikely to passively surrender the cream of its 28 institutions to the regents. The same goes for the individual boards of trustees, who likely would lose much of the autonomy they currently enjoy over their two-year institutions.

That's why no tinkering should be done without careful study and long-range planning. Yet there's also a need to act quickly, because the problem of access to upper-level programs, exacerbated by the state's agreement to find a spot for every community college graduate, is only going to get worse.

Here's one way to gauge the scope of the problem: The number of Florida high school graduates is increasing each year, and the state's public universities currently accommodate about 11 percent of those. To maintain that accommodation rate, university enrollment would have to increase some 50 percent by the turn of the century _ from the current 160,000 students to 240,000.

If we don't make more room by then, "We would be saying no to 95 percent or more of our high school graduates," said regents' spokesman Patrick Riordan.

Adding four-year degrees at community colleges is one option for the larger goal of creating a so-called middle tier of educational institutions. Basically, that amounts to creating a state college system to complement the current state university system and community college system. It would concentrate on four-year degree programs geared toward employment _ teaching, nursing, business _ rather than toward research-intensive advanced degrees offered by most of the state universities. Avoiding the expensive faculty, labs, libraries and other overhead of the major universities is what theoretically would lower middle-tier costs. Such a system of options is generally credited with making California a model in higher education.

Other options for creating a middle tier include converting larger branch campuses of major universities into independent small state colleges; refocusing the mission of smaller state universities such as the University of North Florida; or any combination thereof.

A bill currently before the House Appropriations Committee would require the Postsecondary Education Planning Commission to study the feasibility of creating such a middle-tier system. It deserves careful consideration. With state university enrollment already frozen due to lack of funding, the need for more degree options is crucial. No state can attract the kind of high-tech clean-industry tax base Florida urgently needs, without maintaining an education system that produces the skilled workers those industries need.

If we care about our state, we'll have to spend the money. The question is how.

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