Florida’s first community college, known as a “junior college,” opened in Palm Beach County in 1933.
Junior colleges no longer exist in Florida, with the system and the names of the institutions evolving over time into what were once known as “community colleges.”But that too has changed, with only four schools in Florida’s 28-member state college system identified as community colleges.
As the Florida Legislature prepares to consider major legislation impacting the state colleges this spring, a new focus has emerged over the college names. The debate will not be as intense as in 2015, when now-Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, pushed legislation that would have required 17 of the schools to change their names, dropping the use of the word “state” in their titles.
New Senate legislation (SB 374) only aims to change the name of the “Florida College System” to the “Florida Community College system.” It would also create a “State Board of Community Colleges” to oversee the 28 schools.
Yet the issue of the name change remains a sensitive one for many of the college presidents and trustees, who are seeking acknowledgment of the system’s increasing role in higher education, including granting four-year degrees.
Thomas Leitzel, president of South Florida State College in Avon Park, said while he had no objection to being identified as a community college, he would oppose a system name change.
“Since we have moved beyond that in Florida, I would hate to regress,” he said.
“I’m a firm believer in strong branding,” Leitzel said. “I like the current name of the Florida college system, because there are other schools in Florida that are less than collegiate that call themselves colleges.”
A former president of the Technical College of the Lowcountry in South Carolina, Leitzel said schools in South Carolina tried to change their names but were unsuccessful. But unlike Florida, Leitzel said the South Carolina colleges did not offer baccalaureate degrees.
Having also served as a college administrator in other states, including North Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania, Leitzel said Florida is at the forefront of the evolving community college system.
“I firmly believe Florida is a leader in that, recognized nationally and internationally,” he said.
In advocating that colleges drop the use of the name “state” in their titles in 2015, Negron said it was an “inaccurate” term since the schools are not statewide institutions but serve regional education needs.
St. Petersburg College was the first state college authorized by the Legislature to offer four-year degrees in 2001 and at the same time changed its name from St. Petersburg Junior College.
Bill Law, the college’s president who is retiring this June, said the move to change the college names came in part from the accreditation process under the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
He said as more Florida colleges sought to offer baccalaureate degrees, SACS insisted the schools change their names to reflect the fact that they were offering four-year degrees. Law said the name-change rule is still on the books but “is no longer the operative rule” under the SACS process.
It explains why three of the four schools, calling themselves community colleges, including Tallahassee Community College and Florida Keys Community College, are offering four-year degrees but have not changed their names.
“I don’t think you change the role of a community college if they have one baccalaureate program,” Law said.
In a conference that drew state college trustees from around the state last week in Tallahassee, Patrick “Joe” Wright, a member of the board of trustees at South Florida State College, said a name change would undermine the effort to raise the quality of the system and overcome past perceptions of the schools.
“Locally we have a nickname: Harvard on the Highway,” Wright said. “It’s not meant as a compliment. And going from a state college back to a community college is going to make it harder to overcome that.”
Wright said he hoped any changes in the state college system would be driven by “good policy reasons” rather than for “personality” reasons.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a likely candidate for governor next year, has been making the role of state colleges a key component of his initiative to improve economic development in rural Florida.
In talking to the college presidents and trustees last week, Putnam said the state colleges with industry certification programs, associate degrees and some baccalaureate programs are in the best position to help students in rural areas find high-paying jobs.
“We ought to scream from the mountain tops that we have the best state college system in America consistently,” he said.