A bill that would create a new governance board for state colleges and limit their ability to expand baccalaureate degrees cleared its first Senate committee Monday, although the measure drew plenty of questions.
The most controversial aspect is a provision that would set limits on the ability of the 28 state colleges to offer four-year or baccalaureate degrees.
The bill, which cleared the Senate Education Committee in a unanimous vote, would also create a new State Board of Community Colleges, which would oversee the 28-school system.
The state colleges are now under the State Board of Education, which also oversees the K-12 system.
The measure (SB 374) would also increase the time it would take for colleges to win approval for new baccalaureate programs, including a one-year prior notification to the new State Board of Community Colleges and allowing a 180-day period for state universities to react to the baccalaureate proposals.
"This will enable more advocacy, accountability and independence for the college system," said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who was handling the legislation for committee Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican who is recovering from a cancer treatment.
Galvano defended the new limits on baccalaureate degrees, noting the legislation was re-emphasizing the state college's system primary role of awarding associate degrees and technical certificates, with bachelor degrees being a secondary function.
He also noted the legislation would not eliminate baccalaureate programs now in place at the state colleges, which were traditionally known as community colleges.
The proposal would cap enrollment growth in baccalaureate degrees to 2 percent at each school, if a school's upper-level enrollment represented more than 8 percent of the total full-time students.
Baccalaureate degrees could expand by 4 percent if the upper-division enrollment was less than 8 percent. In both cases, the bill would allow state colleges to seek a waiver of those limits from the Legislature.
Eileen Holden, president of Polk State College, said imposing a more-lengthy review of proposed baccalaureate programs would hurt the system's ability to respond quickly to workforce demands in local communities.
"We believe that the current process is sufficiently rigorous and that any extension to the review period may cripple a college's ability to be nimble and responsive to local business needs," Holden said.
She also said the colleges' baccalaureate programs are not aimed at "the traditional college student population," noting 73 percent of her school's upper-division students were part-time in the 2015-16 academic year and 41 percent were minority students.
Ed Meadows, president of Pensacola State College, suggested that if lawmakers want to change the governance system for the colleges, it should be done by a constitutional amendment, which was the way the state Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities, was created.
Meadows also questioned the new limits on baccalaureate degrees, noting many students are "place bound" by jobs and families and are unable to attend a state university that is some distance from home.
"Caps on enrollment are counter to our institutional mission of providing open access to affordable, quality higher education," Meadows said.
Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who voted for the bill, said he was sympathetic to the argument that many students would not be able to attend state universities and that the state colleges offered them a closer, more affordable alternative for getting baccalaureate degrees.
Lee, who said he was supportive of the new governing board, said many of those questions surrounding the changes for the college baccalaureate degrees need to be resolved.
"It's not ready for prime time," Lee said about the legislation. "This bill has got big problems."
The bill, which is part of Senate President Joe Negron's initiative to improve higher education in Florida, next heads to the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.