Orlando Sentinel Editorial

Read the opinion piece in today’s Orlando Sentinel.

At a White House event this fall, President Obama called community colleges the “unsung heroes” of the nation’s education system, and “a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.” Give the president an A for this analysis.

Community colleges provide a lower-priced option than universities for high-school graduates to continue their studies and train for the growing share of jobs that require higher education. They also offer a means for the unemployed to gain the new job skills they need. That makes community colleges critical to the nation’s economic recovery.

Does that mean there’s anything to worry about now that Valencia Community College is changing its name to remove “community.”? So far, no. Valencia seems to be avoiding the temptation among community colleges to enter a rivalry with universities for students and state funding.

Last week Valencia’s board of trustees approved the name change, which takes effect in July. Next fall, it will offer its first four-year bachelor’s degrees in two programs. Another program is in the works.

But Valencia’s president, Sandy Shugart, said his college’s primary mission will remain associate’s programs, which produce more two-year degrees than any other institution in the country.

Valencia will stay committed, Mr. Shugart said, to its open-door policy of accepting all students with high-school diplomas, and keeping tuition affordable. That’s vital. Currently, Valencia’s tuition runs about half the cost of a state university’s.

With multiple campuses in Orange and Osceola counties, Valencia has an annual enrollment of more than 65,000 students. Of the high-school graduates in the two counties who go on to higher education in Florida, more than half do it at Valencia.

As for changing its name and adding four-year programs, Valencia has come late to the party. Of the 28 schools in the Florida College System, 18 have now dropped community from their names. Between them, they offer more than 100 four-year programs.

Seminole Community College changed its name last year to Seminole State College of Florida. It launched a bachelor’s program this year, and recently got state approval to add four more.

Shugart said Valencia resisted the change at first. It reconsidered when budget woes led UCF to phase out some bachelor’s programs that Valencia’s graduates often entered. Valencia and Seminole have re-established the programs, with UCF’s support. Many of the other four-year programs that colleges have added are in areas like nursing and education, where universities haven’t been able to meet the demand.

Still, critics of the move into four-year degrees among colleges have warned that they could steal students from universities. While colleges currently are required to consult first with nearby universities before starting their own bachelor’s programs, a state law will waive that requirement in the future.

Don’t underestimate the ability of colleges with ambitious leaders and friends in the Legislature to exploit the opening. Former House Speaker Ray Sansom resigned in 2009 when news broke that he had accepted a job with a northwest Florida community college after steering millions in extra tax dollars to it. The college’s leaders are said to have harbored aspirations to become a full-fledged four-year university.

It’s important to taxpayers, students and the state’s economy for the officials who oversee colleges in Florida to ensure they hold fast to their fundamental role: opening a door for the many students who might otherwise find themselves shut out.

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