The 2-Year 4-Year Degree: Florida Community Colleges Offer Undergraduate Programs

One of the standby debates in higher education is whether colleges should provide a broad liberal arts experience or concentrate specifically on job training. A decade-long project in Florida may have scored a serious point for the latter. Currently 19 community colleges in the state offer 4-year bachelor's degree programs linked specifically to the needs of the local economy. So far the program seems to be working tremendously.

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A Success Story

Since 2001, select Florida community colleges have taken to offering 4-year bachelor's degree programs, honing in on territory typically reserved for other institutions. Perhaps surprisingly, results have been incredibly promising. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that recent graduates of such programs earned an average starting salary of $47,080 in 2009. In comparison, public 4-year university graduates brought home $36,552.

Of course there are a lot of reasons that could explain away that discrepancy. For instance, there are many more students enrolled in public 4-year institutions than in 4-year community college programs, so the sampling size leads to much more variance. Another reason for the difference, however, is built into the community colleges' plan - the bachelor's degrees they offer are tied specifically to workforce needs. Graduates of such programs usually have jobs waiting for them immediately upon completing school, which may not be the case for students of all programs at standard 4-year universities.

Getting Territorial

Are community colleges taking over a territory that doesn't belong to them? A few administrators express fears along those lines. Some 4-year school leaders worry that programs like Florida's cut down on traditional colleges' enrollment, which also cuts their funding. Other community college executives voice concerns that offering bachelor's degrees will complicate community colleges' missions to provide affordable, accessible degrees to all who seek them.

Florida's already put stopgaps in place to assuage both sets of administrators. Community colleges aren't allowed to offer bachelor's degree programs already available at the nearest 4-year school. They also can't cut any associate's degree programs to do so - especially those programs required to transfer to a 4-year institution. Such rules have made this transition easier on many Florida educators; one state official even calls the former measure the 'real key to the success of the legislation.'

Local Benefit

This program's selective development allows it to best target local workforce needs, thereby ensuring Florida has a body of employees ready to fill the gaps in its economy. The state benefits because many community college students aren't able to attend typical 4-year schools, whether it's for reasons of cost, time, geography or something else. According to The Chronicle, 75% of the students enrolled in community college bachelor's degree programs are over 24 years old (for contrast, that statistic only applies to 19% of students in bachelor's degree programs at traditional institutions). Additionally, for the same reasons that those students tend not to go away to 4-year colleges, they typically put their education to use at a job in their own backyard (so to speak).

If the program's success continues, Florida stands to reap huge benefits. According to a 2006 study from the nonprofit group Florida TaxWatch (reported in The Chronicle), these community college bachelor's degrees could generate 250,000 jobs and $33 billion in state revenue by 2015. It's not uncommon for students to enroll in a community college in order to train for employment. Florida seems to have found a way to give them better training and a solid chance of job success. Given those figures, one wonders how widespread the program will become.

Found out how The Gates Foundation is supporting community colleges.

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