SFCC opens new centers, but students remain sparse

Published: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 1:38 a.m.
Taking higher education to residents of outlying areas through satellite campuses is the goal of Santa Fe Community College's "four corners" plan.
But what if SFCC builds it, and they don't come - at least not right away?
Well, SFCC leaders say they are willing to wait.
The college opened a satellite campus in Archer in fall 2003 and another in the Keystone Heights area this month.
In opening the new centers, college leaders described each area as underserved and having "a critical need for higher education."
But so far, both centers are attracting fewer than 200 students a semester to for-credit courses, according to college records.
Both centers regularly hold classes with as few as four or five students.
Over time, lower enrollment means that many classes will not generate enough students to make them viable, forcing the college to offer fewer courses.
By comparison, the college's two older centers - in downtown Gainesville and in Starke - together attract enough students to fill about 2,300 seats in credit courses.
But college leaders say they view centers as "investments for the future" that eventually should pay off.
"Of course I would like every classroom filled," said Jackson Sasser, president of SFCC since January 2002. "We fully anticipate in five to 10 years, we'll be at the same point (in enrollment) as we are at downtown."
At the downtown center, students filled about 1,500 seats in 80 for-credit classes during the fall semester.
"The purpose of the centers is access," Sasser said. "That starts with a student who may be 36 years old and can't go back to high school."
That student can advance in the job market by earning a technical credential or a two-year degree for transfer to a university, Sasser said.
"We're in a traditional university town, but we're trying to reach working adults (who want) to get a better job or advance in the job they're in."
The centers also target pupils coming from high schools, Sasser said.
It's more convenient for younger and older students alike when a satellite campus is built closer to where they live, Sasser said.
"If you don't have a car, then you don't get started," Sasser said, referring to an individual's will to travel to SFCC's main campus in northwest Gainesville.
"It's easier to have the courage to go in from a site that's in your community."

Donations decide sites

SFCC settled in Archer and Keystone Heights because of multi-million dollar donations in land and money the college received from local interests.
"We're blessed to have private donors," Sasser said.
But multiple centers cost more money to operate.
This year's cost to operate the Archer and Keystone centers is altogether about $240,000, according to college records.
Of the two new centers, the college appears surer that the center in the Keystone Heights area will succeed.
"The Keystone center will grow faster than all the others," Sasser said, explaining that the campus will draw from southeast Bradford County, Keystone Heights and Melrose.
But the college acknowledges it will face more of an uphill climb in attracting students to the center in Archer, a 1,300-resident city that has declined in population since 1990.
"Yes, it will be more expensive to operate the Archer campus per student than the main campus," the college president said.
Sasser said the college's strategy to attract more students is a work in progress.
Sasser said the college may consider adding a signature program, such as a practical nursing program, at the Archer campus to attract more students.
"That would give it a core of students that would always go there," he said.
Currently, SFCC is using a trial-and-error method in offering courses to see what will attract the most students.
"Part of my mandate is to work closely with the community to see what their needs are so we can increase enrollment," said Ruth Henderson, director of SFCC's satellite campus in Archer, known as the Davis Center. "We really need to know what people here want.
"They need to become comfortable with a new place."
The SFCC model differs from similar-sized Tallahassee Community College, which also is expanding to serve outlying areas.
Tallahassee Community College is opening two small-scale centers to serve outlying areas this year. But the focus will be on job-training and adult education courses, said Kurt Salsburg, a Tallahassee Community College vice president.
"We just would not have the population to run college-level courses," Salsburg said.
But Sasser said SFCC has higher expectations for residents of rural areas than Tallahassee Community College does.
SFCC's centers generally offer a limited selection of introductory liberal arts courses. To complete degrees or certificate programs, students usually still have to drive to the main campus.
"We have this exalted idea" that everyone wants to earn degrees that will lead to higher-paying jobs, Sasser said. "Not just the entry level where you make minimum wage."

System chief backs expansion

The chancellor of Florida's community college system said he supports SFCC's outreach efforts.
"Everybody is wanting our colleges in their community to better train the local workforce," David Armstrong said.
The fastest growing fields, such as in technology and health care, often have jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree, Armstrong said. Community colleges are better equipped than universities to meet local workforce training needs, he added.
Even as SFCC shows low enrollment in for-credit courses at its newest centers today, the college will stick with it, said Thomas Mallini, a member of the SFCC board of trustees.
"Those six or seven students that are in a for-credit class may not otherwise have had an opportunity to do that," he said.
Mallini pointed to the enrollment growth at the downtown and Starke centers, which opened 15 and 20 years ago, respectively. Just over 300 students enrolled for classes during the Starke Center's inaugural term, according to college data.
Enrollment for fall 2004 in Starke was listed at 448. At the Blount Center, 493 students were enrolled in classes for the downtown center's first term in 1990. Enrollment for the fall 2004 term was listed at 1,120 students.
"We will stay the course," he said. "We are committed to providing access (to higher education) to as many citizens as we can."
Douane D. James can be reached at (352) 374-5087 or jamesd@gvillesun.com.

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