With the sour economy prompting many out-of-work Floridians to consider going back to school, community colleges for the most part have struggled to keep up with the demand.
The same recession that fueled record unemployment also dried up the state’s higher-education funding — with Miami Dade College last year cutting academic programs and Broward College struggling to add enough classes.
Community college budgets this year are still lean, but schools have escaped further deep cuts, and are in fact launching new four-year bachelor’s degree programs.
At Miami Dade, the new four-year degrees being offered this fall include electronics engineering, film, television and digital production, physician assistant studies, and supervision and management.
Broward College is adding information technology and technology management degrees, while expanding its bachelor’s in supervision and management program to all three campuses. In January, a four-year nursing degree program will be launched.
“It’s cheaper here,” said Broward College student Marixsa Estrella, of Pembroke Pines, who already has her associate’s degree in nursing, and was considering going to Florida Atlantic University for her bachelor’s. Now she’s leaning toward staying put. “I’ve already been to the school, so I feel comfortable here.”
In-state tuition at community colleges costs more than $35 less per credit than at state universities — adding up to savings of more than $500 per semester.
At age 36, Estrella is older than a traditional college student, but she fits right in with the student body at Florida community colleges’ four-year programs — 41 percent of those students are 35 or older.
“That’s an incredible number. That’s telling a story in and of itself,” said Judith Bilsky, executive vice chancellor of Florida’s State College System. “These are adults in the community who perhaps have been laid off or maybe had to stop their education because they were raising a family . . . We’re seeing a different demographic than you would in a university.”
That’s one reason why Florida’s 28 community colleges, more than half of which now offer bachelor’s degrees, are still by no means replacing traditional four-year schools such as Florida International University and the University of Florida, Bilsky said.
When seeking state approval to add four-year degree tracks, community college officials must show how they plan to pay for those offerings. That way, the associate degree programs that are still their core mission don’t suffer.
Unlike the wide-ranging bachelor’s degree options at a state university, the four-year programs at Miami Dade and Broward colleges narrowly target high-demand careers for which there is a demonstrated shortage of qualified local workers.
“The job market exists. That’s the point,” said Pamela Menke, associate provost at Miami Dade College.
Miami Dade and Broward colleges both already offer bachelor’s degrees in critical-need teaching careers, like math and science, with Miami Dade also offering programs in nursing and public safety management. The number of baccalaureate tracks at Miami Dade College has now reached a dozen.
“Opportunity changes everything,” Menke said.
“We’ve given our students an extended opportunity.”