TALLAHASSEE, FL. (WTXL) - The battle over how far Florida colleges should be allowed to go in offering four-year degrees, once largely the responsibility of state universities, has spawned a new effort to more strictly limit those opportunities.
The newest measure is sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who could become Senate president after the 2016 elections and has worked before to limit college offerings that he says overlap with what four-year universities already provide.
"One of my goals over the next several years is to make our good universities great," Negron said. "And you can't find the funding to do that when you have unnecessary duplication of effort."
Under Negron's proposal, which was attached to an existing measure on higher education (SB 1252), colleges would have to give notice a year before they expect to start offering new four-year degrees, up from 60 days in the current law. It would cap at 5 percent the share of a college's enrollment that could be made up of students pursuing baccalaureate degrees.
And in a shot to the marketing of the colleges --- which used to be called "community colleges" the institutions would no longer be allowed to use "state" in their names. Sixteen colleges would have their names changed to comply with that rule, in addition to Florida Gateway College being renamed Lake City College.
Negron said that part of the proposal would refocus the colleges on their regional missions. Each state college has an area of the state which it is supposed to serve spelled out in state law.
"As far as the use of the term 'state,' it's a misleading, inaccurate term," he said. "When you say 'Florida State College,' that college does not serve all of Florida, it does not serve all the state."
There has long been tension between colleges, which are overseen by the State Board of Education, and universities, which are managed by the Florida Board of Governors, about whether the Board of Education is too quick to grant four-year degrees to its institutions.
Last year, when he chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Negron threatened to slash $3.5 million from state colleges and give it to universities to try to force a change. Senators also considered taking away the Board of Education's authority over four-year degrees.
Eventually, lawmakers settled on a moratorium on new four-year programs at state colleges.
Negron's new proposal would do away with that moratorium, as would a House bill (HB 7127) approved Tuesday by the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. However, the House measure doesn't have Negron's further language about the colleges and four-year degrees.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education said through email that officials there "prefer to not comment on proposed legislation since it may change."
Jim Henningsen, president of the College of Central Florida, speaking to a Senate committee last week on behalf of college presidents, said colleges were focused on the narrow goal of the original authority for them to offer four-year programs.
"Our goal in our system is to support exactly as you stated, that regional approach to economic development, workforce training in those areas. ... There are some (situations) where universities as well as the colleges work together and find a baccalaureate solution that was needed for that specific region," he said.
But there have been some concerns raised about the enrollment cap, which Negron has conceded might need to be modified. St. Petersburg College, which was one of the earliest schools to offer four-year degrees, now has about 12 percent of its students enrolled in those programs, according to senators.
Negron said he would be open to language capping that school's four-year enrollment at 15 percent, along with other levels for colleges that already have more than 5 percent of their students pursuing those degrees. Institutions with less than 5 percent of their students in those programs might still face the lower cap.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said he doesn't want the proposal to come across as adversarial, highlighting especially the impact of striking "state" from the names of the colleges.
"That means that the students are the ones that end up bearing the brunt of this," he said.
But Negron said he doesn't believe the institutions would lose any prestige under his proposal, which would change the name of the system to the Florida Community College System but would give the schools themselves names without that term, like Daytona College.
"To me, let's agree on the place of the community colleges in our overall educational system," he said.