Beyond turf guarding

Published: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 12:14 a.m.
Florida's University System is facing major growing pains. There are 750,000 children enrolled in Florida's Prepaid College Plan, and each year 50,000 high school graduates qualify for Bright Futures scholarships. The 11 state universities already enroll 300,000 students and anticipate an additional 50,000 by 2012.
Accommodating that growth would cost an estimated $3.4 billion. But the main source of funding for education-related construction, the PECO fund, is shrinking rather than growing. This year, PECO generated about $1.4 billion. Within two years, it is expected to produce only about $400 million.
Florida could use a 12th or even 13th university. Some smaller institutions, like West and North Florida, have room to grow, and others, like Central Florida, may seek to build more branch campuses (UF isn't planning to expand undergraduate enrollment). But state funding to pay for additional facilities will be hard to come by.
So how to accommodate growth? First, universities will have to get better use out of their existing facilities; for instance, by enrolling more students into summer and night classes. There is also an opportunity to expand distance learning and offer more "virtual" classes over the Internet.
But another way to accommodate growth demands is to encourage more collaboration between Florida's public universities and community colleges. When the president of Tidewater Community College, in Virginia, visited Gainesville last year, she talked about a program that enables her students to earn a University of Virginia degree without having to leave that Norfolk-area campus. There's no reason why university courses cannot be taught on community college campuses, or joint degree programs established.
One hang-up to better cooperation had to do with a political feud between the Board of Governors, which operates the universities, and the Board of Education, which runs community colleges, over which entity had the right to grant four-year degrees. The jurisdictional dispute had been further complicated by previous legislative decisions to authorize several community colleges to begin to grow into four-year schools.
This week that stand-off began to be resolved with the signing of an agreement between the Board of Governors and Board of Education that will allow community colleges to offer bachelor degrees in "high demand" areas.
''Florida's university system will always remain as the primary way for students to earn a bachelor's degree,'' Community College Chancellor David Armstrong said. ''But in the case of professions where our state has the greatest need - nursing, teaching and applied sciences - Florida's community college system provides a viable and accessible option.''
The agreement is a good start, and, hopefully, will help to resolve some of the political and jurisdictional disputes over just who should control the granting of four-year degrees in Florida. But our hope is that this initial meeting of minds will lead even more productive forms of collaboration between universities and community colleges; perhaps in the model of the University of Virginia-Tidewater Community College partnership.
The projected demand for college admissions is so great, and available resources so limited, that accommodating enrollment growth will require creative solutions and a lot of cooperation, not only between public colleges and universities, but with Florida's private institutions as well.
It is time to stop fighting about turf protection and look for real solutions.

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