Florida’s low-cost degrees pay off

Florida’s low-cost bachelor’s degrees are paying off for students, writes Sophie Quinton in The Atlantic

Graduates from the Florida College System’s workforce-oriented bachelor’s degree programs earn about $8,000 more the year after graduation than university graduates, according to research mandated by the state legislature. Tuition for four-year degrees from FCS institutions typically cost $13,000—less than half the cost of four years at a state university.

Alberto Partida, 43, will spend less than $10,000 to earn a four-year degree in supply-chain management from Broward College, a former community college in South Florida. A high school graduate and former restaurant owner, Partida  hopes to enter a growing field. The college estimates there will be 3,555 new supply-chain management jobs in the county by 2019, driven by the expansion of local ports.

The FCS (formerly the Florida Community College System) offers four-year degrees in high-demand fields, such as nursing and computer engineering technology, that lead directly to jobs. FCS colleges don’t offer liberal arts degrees, and can’t offer programs that compete with nearby universities.

But in programs roughly equivalent to university majors, FCS graduates do just fine. Business administration and elementary education majors at state universities earn about the same their first year out of school as FCS graduates, the report found. Registered nurses who graduate from FCS institutions actually earn about $10,000 more their first year out than their university-educated peers.

Florida Prepaid, a state program that lets parents pay for college in advance, charges $53,729 for a four-year university plan, almost three times as much as a four-year FCS degree plan. “Each year that goes by we’re starting to see more families purchasing the four-year Florida College plan and the 2+2 plan,” says Kevin Thompson, executive director of Florida Prepaid. The 2+2 plan combines an associate’s degree with two years at a state university.

Florida claims best community colleges

“Florida’s community college system today is regarded as the very best in the land,” boasts the Gainesville Sun. Florida has placed more community colleges in the Aspen Institute‘s top 10 percent than any other state: 15 of the state’s 28 community colleges made the list this year.  Gainesville’s Santa Fe College and Broward College in Fort Lauderdale were listed in the top 10 colleges in the nation.

Aspen honors give community colleges more credibility, says Jim Henningsen, president of the College of Central Florida in Ocala.

“For us, what’s great is it’s third-party validation of the great work we do for students and our communities around the state,” he said. “… We’re the best investment for the dollar that the state’s got, and the state knows that.”

Because of the Aspen recognition “higher caliber students are picking community colleges,” says Henningsen.

Colleges will design competency-based, self-paced courses

Community college students will be able to demonstrate competency to earn credits in self-paced classes, reports the Texas Tribune. It’s the Western Governors University model — but classes will include classroom instruction as well as online learning.

WGU Texas and three community colleges — Sinclair Community College in Ohio, Broward College in Florida and Texas’ own Austin Community College — have received a shared $12 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to develop curricula for key technology fields that allow students to move at their own pace in courses that aren’t purely internet based.

ACC hopes to offer self-paced computer programming courses as early as the fall of 2013. Students who earn an associate’s degree will be able to go on to WGU Texas for a bachelor’s degree.

(ACC President Richard Rhodes) said using “competency units” rather than credit hours would allow the school to be more responsive to the region’s workforce needs. If, for example, a company wanted employees to acquire certain skills quickly, they might be able to “invert the degree” by teaching the requested skills first and then later adding general education requirements necessary for an associate’s degree.

Computer science students could earn 11 industry certifications, an associate degree and a bachelor’s, says Mark David Milliron, chancellor of WGU Texas, a former Gates Foundation official.

The competency model could expand to other majors, Rhodes says.