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Imagine you are a state legislator or governor, your state’s budget for next year still shows a great big deficit even after deep-to-the-bone cuts have been made in every area, including higher education in the past two years.

You have noted that the higher education institutions have hired new lobbyists to “keep you informed” and the pressure is on to “keep tuition from being raised substantially”, or “enrollment curtailed” the only options universities give legislators. Since 2008 states have cut back their allocation to higher education by an average of 12% with some state university systems having to reduce enrollment by 5% or more. Others have either threatened or carried out tuition and fee increases in the double digits. This has brought hundreds of letters to your office from angry parents, students and other voters.

Imagine also that there was a solution at hand, one that could lower the state cost per student 40% without lay-offs, cut-backs in enrollment, tuition increases or limitations on new programs; would you want to try that solution?

Half of the 28 community colleges across Florida now offer 4-year degrees, at a cost per student of less that 60% of the comparable course in the state regional university next door.   Some of them have even changed their names to improve the prestige of their brand and to reflect their new roles. The first one to get approval to make the change was St. Petersburg Junior College, which now known as St. Petersburg College. They are offering 20 new bachelors degrees. The 28 community colleges offering 4-year degrees are fully accredited and licensed, and their degrees are about as prestigious as any from the traditional regional state university next door.

In addition to reducing the cost per student, allowing community colleges to offer 4-year degrees may bring with it a potential improvement of the graduation rates of some students.

Community Colleges have traditionally been better able to retain their students from the first to the second year than 4-year colleges particularly when those being retained are minority students. 4-year colleges loose by the second year almost 50% of the Hispanics and 45% of the African Americans enrolled as freshmen, while community colleges loose less than half the percentage.

Traditional Universities (TU’s) have a powerful voice in the state house. First of all most of the elected officials are alumni from one or another of them, while a smaller percentage attended community colleges.  Often TU’s are much bigger economic drivers in their communities than community colleges and this brings to their political camp elected officials, business people and the local voters. TUs are engaged in research and graduate work, which the state might consider essential to their future survival and subsidizing this cost via financial support of the TU’s teaching agenda is a cheap way to obtain those results.

Faced with the reality of having to reign-in the growth of TUs for fiscal reasons during a time when every public policy study recommends expanding the percentage of students who go to college, is politically and socially not very desirable. Frank Brogan the new Chancellor of the Florida 4-year university system told the press shortly after he was named that “What we’re trying to do, now that the horse is out of the barn, is see if we can organize what we have and make better decisions going forward.”  Organizing is higher education governance’s code word for limiting growth and that is not a promising path. But the horse is out of the barn and making his way to other states. The cuts to state 4-year campuses could become permanent without the state experiencing a decline in graduates. What do you think 4-year institutions should do to keep from becoming affected by this trend?                                                                   More next week