Higher education now a major SW Fla. growth industry

Chapel Hill, N.C., is known for one entity – the University of North Carolina.

With 28,567 students and 259 degree programs, the university is the city’s treasure and economic driver.

Southwest Florida has its own version of UNC, a collection of 10 small- to medium-sized colleges. When combined, however, they educate 32,000 students and offer 231 majors.

Our colleges are public and private, expensive and down-right cheap. Classes are held at day and night, online and on campus. From associate’s degrees to doctorates, the region’s 10 colleges have almost every major covered.

That abundance of institutions, however, also poses a concern as multiple colleges find themselves offering the same degrees. Students desiring an associate’s in accounting, for example, can attend Hodges University, Rasmussen College, Southwest Florida College or Edison State College. There’s also a bounty of programs in criminal justice, education, business administration and management.

Despite three new colleges – Rasmussen, Ave Maria School of Law and ITT Technical Institute – setting up shop the past 13 months, campus leaders do not expect the higher education market to become oversaturated, and crumble like the housing market.

"The other schools see Southwest Florida as the last frontier," said Rita Lampus, director of enrollment services at Hodges. "You can’t stop them from coming here, but there will always be people interested in earning a college degree. I don’t think there will be a major bubble burst because of the competition."

That duplication of programs is good for students, said Steve Calabro, executive vice president at Southwest Florida College, because competition in any educational or business environment benefits the consumer.

"I don’t think you’ll see a tuition war, though, because every institution has its set operational costs," Calabro said. "It’s just like where you shop, at Wal-Mart or Target, at Publix or Albertsons. People go where they feel they are getting a better product or better deal."

For Shawn Matthew, 36, of east Fort Myers, several area colleges offer elementary education programs. She chose Edison State College based on the bottom line; its tuition is the region’s most affordable.

"I’m married and we’re raising a family," said Matthew, who like thousands of students in Southwest Florida, will begin the fall semester a week from today. "I found what the other colleges had was interesting.

"But ultimately, for me, it comes down to the price."

For a bachelor’s level student at Edison, a semester’s worth of classes would cost $1,492. For an undergraduate at Ave Maria University, the semester tuition bill equals $8,583. Tuition at other institutions runs the gamut.

Aside from price variance, local institutions have program variance. Barry and Nova Southeastern universities target health care and education. Ave Maria University has the religious element. Southwest Florida College, Rasmussen and ITT Tech focus on career-preparatory programs. Ave Maria School of Law covers legal education.

Florida Gulf Coast University has evolved from a commuter school to a more traditional public university, offering three times as many programs – 80 degrees – than any other local college. Still, 18- to 22-year-olds don’t dominate the landscape.

"We have 70-year-olds on our campus going to class along with 17-year-olds and 40-year-olds," said FGCU Associate Provost Peg Gray-Vickrey.

No college, not even the University of North Carolina, can offer every major under the sun. Southwest Florida institutions lack degree programs in cultural studies, architecture, aerospace and chemical engineering, astronomy and journalism, among others.

A large void is lack of a medical school within 100 miles of Fort Myers, and landing one anytime soon is less likely after the University of Central Florida and Florida International University each christened new med schools on Aug. 3.

Salome Khan, a certified nursing assistant for Lee Memorial Health System, agrees the region has a lot to offer. She wants an associate’s degree to propel her into a job as a registered nurse. Although FGCU and Edison have flirted with it, no colleges have dropped roots near her home in northwest Cape Coral.

"I’d like to see a college in the Cape, but that’s not going to happen," Khan said.


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