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State colleges defend 4-year degrees

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida College System chancellor on Thursday defended the ability of state colleges to offer four-year degree programs, saying the approval process for new baccalaureate degrees is "rigorous" and that students receiving the degrees remain a small part of overall enrollment.

Chancellor Madeline Pumariega told the House Post-Secondary Education Subcommittee that the 28 colleges have had the ability to start baccalaureate programs since 2001, with the first four-year degrees being offered by St. Petersburg College.

She said lawmakers approved the expansion of baccalaureate degrees, which traditionally have been awarded by state universities, to keep Florida economically competitive and to provide the flexibility of four-year college "workforce" degrees aimed at filling job-skills gaps in local communities.

Currently, 27 of the 28 state colleges offer the degrees in 179 programs.

The four-year degrees are the focus of Senate legislation (SB 374) that would overhaul the review and approval process for baccalaureate degrees and impose an enrollment cap on upper-division students at the schools, which in the past were known as community colleges.

College advocates have raised objections to the Senate bill saying the new review process could limit the schools' ability to quickly respond to workforce needs, while maintaining baccalaureate degrees play a limited role at their campuses.

In the 2014-15 academic year, only 4.5 percent of the more than 800,000 students enrolled in state colleges were in baccalaureate programs, with four-year graduates representing 6 percent of the 111,000 degrees and certificates awarded that year, according to the state Department of Education.

Pumariega said the state college system remains focused on two-year associate degrees, which made up 56 percent of the enrollment and 64 percent of the degrees awarded in 2014-15.

"You see by enrollment our colleges have stayed true to that (mission)," Pumariega told the House members.

Critics of the four-year college degrees point to rapid growth in the system, with Senate analysts noting enrollment in four-year programs more than doubled in the last five years. The growth raises questions of "mission creep" by colleges on the universities' turf and the possibility of costly duplication of programs.

Many of those issues were raised in 2014 when the Legislature imposed a one-year moratorium on new college baccalaureate programs.

Pumariega said the moratorium led to changes in the review process for new degree programs, including a more detailed economic analysis, a larger role for the state and private universities and an ultimate approval by the State Board of Education.

Since the moratorium ended in 2015, the Board of Education has approved 10 new four-year degree programs at the colleges, while another 11 were withdrawn. Another 14 remain in the approval pipeline, according to the Senate.

"We believe that this process is a fairly tight process but one that is responsive to workforce needs," Pumariega told the House panel.

Additionally, Pumariega said the only new baccalaureate programs that have been approved are "$10,000 degrees," meaning students would pay no more than that in tuition and fees. She noted that while those degrees are a bargain for the students, it costs the colleges more than that to provide the programs.

Anna Jones, who works as a nurse in Tallahassee, told the House committee that Gulf Coast State College's four-year degree in nursing helped her stay in school and ultimately get a job, despite limited finances.

She said she was able to earn her two-year degree at the Panama City school and then move on to earn a bachelor of science in nursing degree, while working full time to help cover her tuition. She said the lower cost of the college program, as well as the flexibility of an online program, helped her finish her degree and get a job as a nurse in a medical-surgical intensive care unit.

"I would not be where I am today without it," Jones said, noting most employers require nurses to have bachelor's degrees for the higher-skills positions.

In her testimony, Pumariega also stressed the collaborative role that universities play when a state college proposes a new four-year degree program.

For instance, Miami Dade College last year won approval for a data analytics baccalaureate degree, but only after Florida International University signed off on it, Pumariega said. As part of the agreement, college students who earn four-year college degrees can move on to FIU to earn advanced degrees, she said.

Next week, the Board of Education is expected to approve a four-year accounting degree program at Santa Fe College. That came after the University of Florida acknowledged most of its accounting graduates move out of the area, leaving a gap that the college program is designed to fill, Pumariega said.