Editorial: SPC meeting higher education challenges

Published June 14, 2013

Retention rates at community colleges have never been something to brag about. By design, the schools' relaxed admission standards mean almost anyone can start. But many students don't stay, in part because they don't get enough personal attention. Bill Law is trying to change that at St. Petersburg College, and he looks to be off to a good start. Three years into his job as president, Law is moving what was Florida's first community college to offer four-year degrees toward its maximum potential.

Law inherited a college that for three decades had been overseen by one dynamic personality, Carl Kuttler. But public higher education is not the industry it used to be — with accountability measures, distance learning demands and eroding public support. Law appears to be rising to the challenge.

He has shifted resources from administration to frontline jobs, including launching a bold student support initiative last year aimed at improving retention and success, particularly among underrepresented minority students. It shows great promise. This spring, among students needing remedial classes before beginning college level work, success rates (finishing classes with a C or higher) were up 7 percent overall, including up 13 percent among African-Americans and up 11 percent among Hispanics. Among traditional college students, the rates were up 9 percent, including 11 percent for African-Americans and 19 percent for Hispanics. Long term, that is the path to the greatest contribution SPC can make to the Tampa Bay region and its workforce: ensuring a far greater share of students who enter its doors actually earn a college degree.

Law has had some hiccups. Early in his tenure at SPC, the former Tallahassee Community College president failed to provide access to budget documents that are clearly public records. That has since been remedied. A much-anticipated new college building in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood is stalled, first because the college mishandled a public meetings requirement on construction bids, and now because of challenges to the bidding procedure that Law changed and still defends. There also is a lawsuit filed by an unsuccessful candidate to become provost at the downtown St. Petersburg campus. That followed a gender discrimination complaint with federal officials by that applicant that Law told her current employer and references about. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rebuked Law for that, and Law says he regrets sending the letter.

Overall, though, Law has been a breath of fresh air to one of Pinellas County's most important institutions. State colleges serve a diverse student body, from traditional students fresh out of high school to unemployed middle-aged workers returning to school for retraining. Law has displayed a passion for serving each of those groups well and an openness to what that will mean in the changing landscape of higher education.