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  1. The Education Gradebook

State colleges push back against Senate bill that would limit their role

Florida's state college presidents want to know: Why fix something that isn't broken?

Ask state college leaders, and they'll extoll their successes in serving legions of students outside of the traditional university path: often part-time, holding down a job or raising kids, looking for a way into the workforce.

Yet a 226-page bundle of changes to the college system is churning through the Florida Senate as a chief priority of the chamber's leader, looking to remind college presidents of their time-honored, workforce-centric mission — a mission the presidents say they haven't lost.

Priority No. 1 for state colleges, formerly known as community colleges, should be two-year degrees and workforce certifications, said bill sponsor Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, troubled by colleges' continued expansion into four-year degree programs.

Her bill would cap enrollment in four-year programs, as well as create a state oversight board and tweak performance metrics in hopes of pushing colleges to speed up the path to graduation.

College presidents say the state should trust their track record, as well as the markets that revealed a need for the four-year programs in the first place.

"Anytime you put a cap on education, you're probably sending the wrong message," said President Timothy Beard of Pasco-Hernando State College.

Vexed college leaders may find an ally in Gov. Rick Scott, who vetoed similar provisions last year, bristling at the "red tape" that would "impede" the system's mission. This year's bill is somewhat less aggressive in its restrictions but has still drawn fierce critics who say lawmakers are making sure colleges know their place.

RELATED: USF's path to 'preeminence' is restored after Rick Scott vetoes higher education bill

Those critics also say Senate leadership has shown a lopsided focus on boosting the public university system at the expense of state colleges, slashing the latter's budget while giving universities a windfall.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said lawmakers are simply trying to maximize the strengths of both.

"These ideas don't come out of thin air," Galvano said. "We see statistics such as people lingering too long or students not being in a position to achieve success after having spent years in an institution, and that encourages us to try to adjust the problems and make things better for those students."

Plus, he said, the bill would add about $102 million in new funding for the colleges.

Still, Galvano and other legislators suspect that colleges have encroached on university territory, though colleges' four-year degrees aren't designed to compete with university programs.

Senate Bill 540 would cap the number of juniors and seniors in four-year programs to 20 percent of a college's full-time enrollment. St. Petersburg College is closest to the cap at 14 percent.

Systemwide, the cap would be set at 10 percent, double today's enrollment numbers.

St. Petersburg College President Tonjua Williams said the cap could hamstring colleges that try to respond quickly to immediate, local needs, such as nursing or education.

"Our enrollment in baccalaureate has significantly grown because that's what Pinellas County residents need," she said.

Plus, she said, these affordable, accessible programs are rigorously designed with input from local businesses and universities. University of South Florida leader Judy Genshaft has even recommended potential programs for SPC, Williams said.

Hukill said the caps are set high enough to allow room for growth. But she said she has seen a troubling shift away from colleges' workforce mission. In the last seven or eight years, she said, upper-level enrollments have jumped 113 percent, while lower-level enrollment has dropped.

Presidents also took issue with new performance metrics that would emphasize on-time graduation — a noble cause that they said fundamentally misunderstands their typical student.

"Realistically, our students have to work," said Hillsborough Community College President Ken Atwater. "They're not 100 percent students. They have other life responsibilities."

Only full-time students would be counted in the metrics, though they make up just 35 percent of the student population. Performance funding would hinge on that smaller group.

In a committee meeting Wednesday, Hukill emphasized the need for accountability, pointing to state data that revealed scores of students leaving school with nothing to show for their time.

Of a group of first-time, full-time students who started in 2009, about 18 percent got a bachelor's degree in six years, 13 percent got a credential, and 26 percent were still enrolled. But 43 percent left with nothing.

"We can do better," Hukill said.

But non-completers may have left because they landed a job, the leader of the state college system said.

"Oftentimes those six or seven courses that they took did provide that career path for them," said Chancellor Madeline Pumariega.

Another proposed metric that has caused concern would evaluate colleges on how their students perform once they've moved onto other institutions.

"I believe in accountability," said Williams, the SPC leader. "But once they hit a new system and they go to a university, that's outside of our control."

Other provisions leaving college leaders wary are a proposal to implement a state governing board and a major tweak to college foundations.

They worry that a central board would erode the flexible, highly localized governance structure that, they said, lets them work closely with their communities. Hukill said those local boards aren't being altered at all.

The leaders also took issue with a rule that schools could no longer pay foundation employees using state money. Instead, those salaries would have to use money raised by the foundations themselves, which largely fund scholarships.

Hukill said this would encourage transparency, but critics said it would just hurt students.

The bill is headed to the Senate floor after passing through a committee this week, but not before some senators expressed doubts.

"I don't see where the system is broken," said Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City.

"Why are we doing this?" asked Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat.

Hukill's response: "You don't generally wait till something is broken. You work on it."

__________

Florida's state college system at a glance *

• 28 colleges

• 70 campuses

• 801,000 students enrolled

• 39,000 students in bachelor's programs

• 65 percent attend part-time

• 58 percent are minorities

• Average age: 25

*2015-16 data

Source: Florida Department of Education

__________

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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