The Phoenix Flyer

Community colleges are a vanishing breed in Florida

By: - March 29, 2019 11:47 am

Like the Florida panther, community colleges in the state are a dwindling species.
The Florida House has sent the Senate a bill (HB 525) that would erase the label “community” from two more state colleges. Florida Keys Community College would become The College of the Florida Keys. And North Florida Community College would become North Florida College.
If approved by the Senate, where similar legislation (SB 720) is moving, it would mean by July 1, only two of Florida’s 28 state colleges would keep the “community” moniker: Tallahassee Community College and Hillsborough Community College.
The name change reflects the evolution of the state college system, which plays a key role in providing higher-education for many students who come from lower-income, minority families.
Unlike the state universities, where entrance exams and grades can make or break admission decisions, the state colleges offer an “open door” policy where students with a high-school degree can continue their post-secondary education.
That meant in the 2017-18 academic year, nearly six out of every 10 students attending a state college were minority students, according to the state Department of Education. They were older, averaging age 25, and 59 percent were female. Some 44 percent of the students qualified for a federal Pell grant, which is financial aid for lower-income students.
Most of the students (65 percent) attend college part-time, meaning many of them were trying to work their way through school.
The oldest colleges, like Palm Beach State College, were once called “junior colleges.” Most became community colleges as the system expanded during the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, more than 733,000 students are enrolled in the college system.
More recently many of the colleges have begun offering four-year degrees. But most of the degrees awarded each year remain two-year associate degrees. Only 8 percent of the degrees awarded in 2017-18 were bachelor’s degrees, according to state education officials.
With the ability to issue four-year degrees, many of the former community colleges preferred to be called “state colleges.” But former Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, resisted changing the community colleges into “state colleges.” He contended it could lead to confusion with four-year institutions like Florida State University.
In fact, during the previous two years when Negron led the state Senate, the name-change legislation for the schools in the Florida Keys and North Florida stalled in the Senate.
With Negron’s departure in November, it appears likely that two more “community colleges” will become relics of the past this year and two new state colleges will emerge in their place.

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.