Florida’s community colleges, now called state colleges, can offer more than an associate’s degree: students don’t necessarily have to transfer to complete a bachelor's degree. However, one bill lawmakers will debate this session—SB 374—introduced by Dorothy Hukill, R-Brevard-Volusia, would limit upper-level courses at state colleges.
WLRN's Rowan Moore Gerety spoke with Brian Peterson, a retired history professor who taught at Florida International University (FIU). He thinks we should move in the opposite direction.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
What's at stake with this bill. What would it do?
This bill would put a cap on the number of programs that community colleges, now almost all state colleges, in Florida are allowed to have at the upper-division level. So the programs that result in a baccalaureate degree, so that it would be difficult to rise over -- like 5 percent of the total programs could be upper division. So it would be denying the baccalaureate degree to students who .... would not be able to travel to go to a state university.
What kinds of programs have we seen at the Miami Dade College campuses and Broward College over the last 10 years?
They were given the ability to have baccalaureate programs in areas where there's not a lot of production by the regular state universities. So they were allowed to fill in. One of the most interesting programs here in Miami was biology and Miami Dade College wanted to have biology. FIU said they should not have biology. And it was eventually decided partly by negotiations, partly by state decision, that biology would be allowed. So biology is a huge program, and lots and lots of people who want to become physicians major in biology. And to deny that to the community colleges would have been cutting off one of the most promising avenues of upward mobility that students could have. It's fortunate that they decided to allow Miami Dade to have the biology program, but it was a big fight.
Why do you view baccalaureate program for these community colleges or state colleges as such a positive thing?
The most important reason is that 80 percent of the students who enter community colleges, who are going full-time, want to have the baccalaureate degree. They want to, they apply to FIU and they're denied. So I think that we're thwarting them in doing something which they could accomplish and which would be better for them.
The drivers for a kid who might have had the option of going to FIU but instead ended up at MDC are that it's closer, it's cheaper. They know more people who've gone there. What have you seen in your 40 years teaching at FIU?
All those things are true. Most FIU students have come from community colleges, you know. So there's a huge overlap between community college students and FIU students. On the other hand, the students who have been better prepared often are from more affluent family backgrounds. They're more likely to be white non-Hispanics. But if you want a really dramatic difference in family income, the students who are at University of Florida come from families that average over $100,000 a year in income. Some of the leaders of the Florida Legislature have explicitly said that they want to put more resources into the University of Florida so that it becomes one of the top 10 best universities in the country in national rankings. And they are looking everywhere to get other resources to give to the University of Florida: one of the ways to do that is to deny upper division programs to the state colleges so that that money could be used for the University of Florida. The whole system that we have here is tilted toward the University of Florida in very unfair ways.
Legislators in Tallahassee have characterized these four-year programs at state colleges as wasteful duplication, and say that the MDCs and Broward Colleges shouldn't be competing with public universities. You don't see it that way, is that right?
Oh I don't. I think that competition is the lifeblood of universities. And I think that it should be left up to the universities or the state colleges to decide how they want to compete. I think they should be able to decide what programs they're going to offer. If we live in a capitalist society then this is another aspect of capitalism and the idea of controlling strictly from on high. I think that the students would have more access to upward mobility if they were able to choose between a four-year program at Miami Dade and a four-year program at FIU. It's not something that should be imposed by the Legislature as to who’s going where.