State college bachelor degree 'mission creep' becomes focus of Senate tuition proposal

Published March 27, 2014

Sen. Joe Negron has decided that Florida's community colleges are offering too many bachelor's degrees that duplicate programs at the 11, soon to be 12, state universities. As the Senate's budget chief, he is in a position to do something about it.

Negron is championing Senate Bill 1148, which today passed the Appropriations Committee that he chairs with one dissenting vote. The bill requires the Legislature to approve any new bachelor's degree programs at community colleges. That takes power away from the state Board of Education, which approves new bachelor's programs at state colleges except St. Petersburg College. By law, it doesn't have to get outside approval.

Separately, the Appropriations panel approved a budget amendment filed by Negron that reduced community college funding for bachelor degrees by 10 percent. That money, was then redistributed to the state's two "pre-eminent" universities. Florida State University and University of Florida received an extra $1.7 million each from the 24 state colleges that have baccalaureate programs. (Four community colleges choose not to offer bachelor degrees.)

Negron, R-Stuart, said he not only thinks state colleges should have a tougher time adding new bachelor degrees, they also should reduce some of the ones they currently. The 175 programs currently offered at community colleges cover subjects that don't fit the initial goal of creating bachelor's degrees that address specific, regional workforce needs, he said.

"We can't build an elite university system if we have a state college system that is trying to do the same thing as the university system," Negron said. "So this is something that I personally care about, so I'm working through the appropriations process to really develop and implement a point of view that I have."

Sen. Jack Latvala, a St. Petersburg Republican, cast the sole "no" vote to SB 1148 and had heated debate with Negron over the budget reductions. Latvala said the Legislature decided several years ago to allow community colleges to offer bachelors degrees as a way to provide students more access at affordable prices.

"Why would we just be shutting the door on the opportunity for kids to have a higher education in our system?" Latvala said.

He also argued that the process of awarding bachelors degrees should be fixed to ensure community colleges stay in their mission, but taking the power away from the Board of Education and giving it to the Legislature isn't the answer. That will allow politics, not academics, to govern which state colleges get new programs in the future, Latvala said.

Negron's higher education proposals are guaranteed to become major issues during budget negotiations. The House has not touched the subject of limiting new bachelor's degree programs as state colleges.

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SB 1148 is ready for a vote on the Senate floor. It also includes tuition limits both sides have agreed on: reducing tuition differential to 6 percent and eliminating automatic tuition increases tied to inflation.

A separate Senate proposal, SB 1400, would get rid of tuition differential all together, as Gov. Rick Scott has proposed. But that bill, sponsored by Latvala, is controversial for another reason: it allows certain undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition. That bill has three more committee stops and considerable opposition.