Florida state colleges are preparing for a renewed legislative fight this spring over how the 28-college system is governed and the number of bachelor’s degrees they can award.
The colleges’ lobbyists told the college system’s Council of Presidents, which met in Tallahassee on Friday, that the Senate is working on a major bill that is expected to contain those elements and will be filed shortly.
The proposal will follow other Senate legislation filed this week that would create new performance standards for the colleges, requiring students to earn their degrees more quickly. And it follows Gov. Rick Scott’s call to freeze tuition and fees for the college system as well as the state universities.
The college presidents, who are seeking a $100 million boost for their system, were also told they could expect an initial budget proposal from lawmakers for the 2017-18 fiscal year that could reduce the current $82 billion state budget by up to $1.9 billion.
“It’s too early to get upset,” said Ed Meadows, president of Pensacola State College and chairman of the presidents’ council. “Every session every year there are always challenges. I would say that this year poses a complexity that we have not seen in a while.”
The issues are not new to the college presidents and are part of Senate President Joe Negron’s initiative to overhaul Florida’s higher education system.
Negron, R-Stuart, has been a sharp critic of the college system in the past.
Not having seen the Senate bill, Meadows said it was too early to assess any changes in the governance system.
But some have suggested the state college system, which has 28 schools serving about 800,000 full- and part-time students, should be put under a separate board similar to the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities.
Currently, the state colleges are under the state Board of Education, which also oversees Florida’s kindergarten-to-high-school system.
Another initiative may impose new limits on the ability of state colleges to issue baccalaureate degrees. In 2015, Negron proposed limiting enrollment in each college’s baccalaureate program to 5 percent of the school’s overall enrollment.
Baccalaureate students remain a small part of the state college system, accounting for 6 percent of the 110,844 degrees and certificates awarded in the 2014-15 academic year, according to the state Department of Education.
Meadows said the Legislature originally gave state colleges the authority to have baccalaureate-degree programs in order to increase the number of Floridians who receive a post-secondary degree or certificate. The state’s current attainment rate is about 46 percent, with a goal to raise that to 55 percent by 2025.
Meadows said the colleges responded to Negron’s prior concerns about duplication in the higher-education system regarding the baccalaureate degrees, including a one-year moratorium that allowed the process to be reviewed.
He said the current system, which allows colleges to initiate baccalaureate-degree programs subject to approval by the Board of Education, is meeting the Legislature’s original goal of increasing degree attainment in the state.
“It takes all of us,” Meadows said. “It takes a village and that includes all of higher education to achieve these attainment goals.”
In addition to policy challenges from Senate leaders, state colleges also will have to respond to the governor’s call to freeze tuition and fees in the system.
Meadows said college tuition has not been raised in five years, while colleges use the existing law to adjust fees based on educational costs. Individual colleges are allowed to raise fees up to 15 percent over a base rate set each year by the Legislature.
“The Florida college system is one of the least expensive higher education systems in the nation,” Meadows said, adding the colleges support the governor’s initiative to offer “instruction at the least possible cost to our students.”
Daytona State College President Thomas LoBasso said the colleges are prepared to work with the Senate, including on other issues such as the creation of a more defined “pathway” that will allow students to move through the college system and be guaranteed a spot in a specific university program.
“Any legislation that is student-centered is a good thing,” LoBasso said.
More challenging may be the Senate’s call to link performance funding for the colleges to the number of students who complete their two- and four-year degrees on time.
“The one thing I will say about our system is that we are nimble, adaptable and up for the challenges,” LoBasso said. “Many of us are currently working on strategies to have (associate-degree) students on a path to finish in two years.”