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It's time for USF expansion

The timetable for the University of South Florida's plans to transform the USF St. Petersburg campus into a four-year school appears to be back on schedule. Officials of the Post-Secondary Education Planning Commission, which has been assigned to review the plans, now say they will attempt to complete their work in time for the Board of Regents to approve the St. Petersburg expansion at its meeting next month.

Let's hope the expansion of USF's freshman and sophomore course offerings in St. Petersburg can go forward without any further delay or intrigue. Pinellas County residents have long deserved more convenient access to a public university education, and USF's plans deserve wholehearted support from the community and from state officials. If USF and the university system are to be faulted, it is for failing to expand the St. Petersburg campus' mission long before now.

Unfortunately, plans for the St. Petersburg campus have become trapped in a larger Tallahassee tug-of-war among the regents, community college administrators and the Legislature. The political meddling that has complicated USF's plans is symptomatic of a broader turf battle that Florida's underfunded system of higher education simply cannot afford.

Closer to home, the Tampa Bay community cannot afford for USF and our local community colleges not to work cooperatively. St. Petersburg Junior College recently expanded its offerings of four-year degrees through affiliations with USF and several other universities, without being subjected to the bureaucratic hurdles that have been thrown in USF's path. SPJC administrators should distance themselves from any broader effort by community-college officials in Tallahassee to block or delay USF's expansion plans.

For the most part, USF and SPJC serve different populations. To the extent their future course offerings overlap, they should be able to coordinate in ways that serve the interests of both institutions as well as the community. Students and would-be students in Pinellas County don't care about turf battles. They just want greater access to higher education. Their interests will be best served if both USF and SPJC are able to move forward with their ambitious plans to expand that access throughout the county.

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