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State Senators Back College System Revamp Amid Graduation Rate Concerns

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A view of Florida State College at Jacksonville's downtown campus.

A plan to create a statewide board to oversee Florida's state and community colleges advanced Monday, while college presidents raised objections to a proposed cap on four-year degrees and a stricter performance measure for graduation that are part of the legislation.
The bill (SB 540), sponsored by Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, cleared the Senate Education Committee in an 8-2 vote.

“That's what this program is all about,” said Hukill, chairwoman of the education panel. “Not only getting students into the community college, but moving them through the community college, getting them into the next level and actually graduating them.”

Although the colleges have earned national accolades, Hukill said “we can do a heck of a lot better.”

Hukill cited data that showed that only 17.7 percent of the students who enrolled in two-year associate degree programs in the college system in 2009 ended up with baccalaureate degrees within six years. Some 26 percent of the students were still enrolled in the associate degree programs, with 13 percent having left with either an associate degree or certificate. But 43 percent left the system without any degree or certificate.

“I think we need to do better than that,” Hukill said.

The bill revives major provisions of legislation passed in the 2017 session but vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott, who objected to a cap on four-year degrees awarded by the colleges and “unnecessarily increasing red tape” in the system.

Related: FSCJ, Other Florida Colleges Make Case For $286 Million Funding Request (10/16/17)

The new bill would create a 13-member State Board of Community Colleges to oversee the college system with its 800,000 students and $2.24 billion budget. The system is now under the state Board of Education, which has the primary responsibility for overseeing Florida's pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade system.

The bill would emphasize the college system's primary role in producing associate-degree graduates, with a secondary role of granting baccalaureate degrees.

The bill would cap individual school enrollment of students seeking four-year degrees at 20 percent, with a systemwide cap of 10 percent.

Another provision in the bill would measure the performance of colleges based on how many students earn degrees by completing programs within “100 percent” of the expected time.

Students in associate-degree programs would be measured against a two-year completion standard, as opposed to the current performance metric, which is based on three-year and four-year completion rates.

Dr. Devin Stephenson, president of Northwest Florida State College, said less than 10 percent of his students are in the school's four baccalaureate programs, but the degrees are important for producing middle-school math and science teachers and responding to the needs of a large military community.

“The potential (baccalaureate-degree) cap could very easily prevent us from responding to a potential critical future need,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson said “market demand” should be the impetus for creating four-year programs rather than imposing a cap. “There is a need and a demand,” he said.

Based on data from the 2016-2017 academic year, Hukill said individual colleges and the system are well below the enrollment caps. Santa Fe College had the highest four-year enrollment at 13.9 percent, while the system had roughly a 5 percent total enrollment, Hukill said.

“There is a tremendous amount of leeway in terms of the expansion of programs,” Hukill said.

Ava Parker, president of Palm Beach State College, said colleges would prefer to stay with performance measures that allow completion of degrees and certificates within 150 percent or 200 percent of the expected time.

Parker also questioned a provision in the bill that would hold colleges accountable for the performance of students who move on to state universities.

Sen. Gary Farmer and Sen. Perry Thurston, both Broward County Democrats, voted against the bill.

Both said they did not see any signs of “mission creep,” referring to the allegation that the colleges are intruding into the realm of the state universities.

The bill, which is a priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is scheduled to be heard next by the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.