As most sectors of the state’s economy have throttled back, St. Petersburg College and many of Florida’s other community colleges have roared ahead, adding new programs and welcoming hundreds of additional students, many of whom had been turned away from other state institutions.
“Rather than shrink from the challenges that faced us, we decided to take an opposite approach and provide additional students with the programs and training they need to get good jobs and be part of the inevitable recovery,” said Tom Furlong, SPC’s Interim President. ” History tells us that community colleges are one of the best sources out there for education that leads directly to jobs. SPC and other similar schools are great values as well as shortcuts to success.”
In his State of the Union speech this week, President Barack Obama urged the Senate to pass legislation that will “revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families.” Read this section from President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union Address.
Steep economic downturns create great opportunities for community college education, Furlong said. Resources may tighten, but community colleges offer high-quality education for comparatively little money, and graduates often walk right into jobs that offer pay and benefits that far exceed their previous employment.
“One reason for this is the close relationships that community colleges tend to have to business leaders in their home areas,” Furlong noted. “If an area needs nurses or bankers or technicians, the local community college usually can turn on a dime, respond to that need, and develop programs that can start serving students almost immediately.”
Florida’s community colleges served more than 845,000 students in 2009, up 9.6 percent from 2008. Enrollments for 2010 are expected to be even higher. As of this week, St. Petersburg College enrollment for the Spring 2010 term is up 14 percent.
Community College Week’s annual Top 100 report, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, said Florida community colleges were among the top in the nation last year when it came to awarding associate degrees.
Will N. Holcombe, Chancellor of The Florida College System, said Florida’s community colleges are determined to keep their doors open to students in spite of ever-tightening budgets.
“Often times, entry into our system is the first opportunity for students to achieve higher education,” he said, “and I’m proud of the work our institutions have done to provide a quality education to a diverse student body during tough economic times.”
One reason for the expanding role of community colleges is the steep enrollment increase among veterans. A new GI bill provides more than $62 billion in education benefits across the country, and vets with three years of active service can receive full tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance, and $1,000 a year for books and supplies. The legislation has contributed to a 76 percent increase in veteran enrollment at Florida colleges.
“Think back to the post-World War II days, when thousands of returning veterans enrolled in colleges across the country and then took the lead in rebuilding the American economy in a way that had never been seen before,” Furlong said. “We have a similar opportunity now, and it is very exciting to consider the role that SPC and other similar institutions can play in that.”
St. Petersburg College began offering bachelor’s degrees in 2002, initially offering programs in nursing, education and technology management. Today, the college offers 22 bachelor’s programs and adds new ones every year. Among similar schools statewide, 16 new bachelor’s programs were created at seven colleges last year. Another 19 new programs at nine Florida colleges have been proposed for this year.
“For more and more students of all ages, SPC and other community colleges are where higher education begins, and higher education means better jobs and enhanced income,” Furlong said. “We understand the role that we play in a stronger future economy, and we’re excited about the challenge we face.”