2-year colleges to offer some 4-year degrees

Published: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 11:43 p.m.

After years of territorial battles between Florida's community colleges and universities, the boards overseeing both groups are trying to make peace.

Under a newly signed legal agreement, Florida's 11 public universities will continue to function as the primary purveyors of baccalaureate degrees in the state, but community colleges will be given limited authority to do the same.

The agreement only allows community colleges to grant bachelor's degrees in three "high demand" areas, which include nursing, teaching and workforce training majors. Those limits are designed to alleviate concerns among university and state officials who fear community colleges might try to make a power play to become quasi universities.

In a state of limited resources, university officials fear community colleges might start taking additional slices of the pie if they became a major source of bachelor degree production.

"We compete for money, so that causes a conflict, and that's just the way it's going to be," said Carolyn Roberts, chairwoman of the state Board of Governors, which oversees public universities.

Roberts said she hoped the agreement "puts to rest" a long-standing conflict between community colleges and universities. In some ways, the agreement appears to do just that.

It attempts to end a debate over who should have oversight of bachelor's programs at community colleges.

The state Board of Education has constitutional oversight of community colleges, but some have suggested the Board of Governors would most appropriately monitor four-year degree programs even if they were administered through community colleges. Since bachelor's degrees are the coin of the realm for universities, the argument goes, the Board of Governors is the natural authority to oversee such programs.

The issue over who has appropriate oversight has been a sticking point in a lawsuit filed by a group called Floridians for Constitutional Integrity. The group is led by E.T. York of Gainesville, chancellor emeritus of the State University System.

The lawsuit, which still has some unresolved legal issues even after years of wrangling, has fundamentally sought to empower the state Board of Governors with the authority York and others say the state constitution provides it.

But York, a champion of the board's powers, said Thursday that he was fine with the Board of Education overseeing some baccalaureate programs as long as they were kept to clear and strict limits.

"I personally don't think community colleges ought to be giving bachelor's degrees," he said. "But if there's a need that is not being met by universities then it's hard to argue against it."

Currently, seven community colleges in Florida offer bachelor's degrees, all of which fall into the areas set out in the agreement. Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville does not offer any bachelor's degrees.

Jackson Sasser, SFCC president, said he saw no reason for SFCC to expand its curriculum to offer bachelor's degrees at this time. Sasser praised the college's current partnerships with UF, wherein students frequently move from SFCC to the university to complete their bachelor's degrees.

"We're not actively pursuing providing bachelor's degrees at present as long as that relationship remains what it is," he said.

Roberts said she was sensitive to concerns about whether community colleges are positioned to offer bachelor's degrees that will match the quality of those offered by universities.

"I am always concerned about quality, because if you have access without quality then you're not being truthful to your students," she said. "And I'm confident that the state Board of Education is going to be paying attention to quality…I am hopeful that their degrees will be on the same level as ours."

David Armstrong, chancellor of the state's Division of the Community College System, said quality control would be assured in part by external standards for teaching and nursing programs. In both cases, outside entities set standards that would mutually apply to community colleges and universities. As for workforce training degrees, such as public safety degrees for firefighters, these are not typically offered by universities to begin with, Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he had no interest in seeing community colleges expand degrees into areas beyond those set forth in the agreement. A new statewide report, issued by an outside consultant this week, suggests community colleges could be completely transformed into bachelor's degree programs to meet the needs of the state.

"I say absolutely not," Armstrong said of the idea. "I say we stay focused on our core mission of being community colleges."

UF Provost Janie Fouke said she was concerned about community colleges trying to move into areas that have historically been in the sole purview of universities. Setting limits on the number of areas where community colleges can offer bachelor's degrees does not alleviate concern about "mission creep," Fouke said.

Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.

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