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Firefighter education spurs tension between Fla. colleges

By Christopher O’Donnell and Tiffany Lankes
The Sarasota Herald Tribune

SARASOTA, Fla. — Local firefighters who dream of rising to the rank of fire chief stand a better chance of success with a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration.

But with no local public college offering the degree, firefighters must travel to St. Petersburg or to pay expensive tuition at private colleges, said Bradenton Fire Department Chief Mark Souders.

That could change if State College of Florida is approved by the state to offer the degree, one of six new programs it is proposing.

But the plan has triggered a dispute with the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, which contends that SCF will waste taxpayer money by offering duplicate degree programs.

The disagreement is another example of the growing tension between universities and colleges ever since the state opened the doors in 2007 for community colleges to offer four-year degree programs.

State lawmakers hoped community schools could help meet high work force demands in areas such as law enforcement, nursing and teaching. But the move ultimately created a competition of sorts between community colleges and traditional universities, with few checks in place to keep the two systems from duplicating programs.

The situation has left educators, politicians and businessmen alike debating the role of community colleges and trying to figure out how to regulate their growing interest in baccalaureate programs.

“When you have a common grazing ground it’s in the best interest of every farmer to put as many of his cows out there as possible,” said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald. “But if everybody grazes in the commons it will be eaten to death and nobody benefits.”

The issue surfaced in Bradenton this week as SCF leaders made their case for six new baccalaureate programs to their board of trustees.

SCF is proposing to offer degrees in energy technology, health services administration, public safety administration, technology management, early childhood education and exceptional student education.

USF has filed a letter with the state saying five of those programs duplicate ones they already offer.

“What their motive is I don’t know,” said SCF President Lars Hafner. “If it stops our progress that’s sad for the community.”

Leaders from local hospitals, police and fire agencies say the programs are needed to allow workers in the field to get the extra qualifications they need to move into top administrative positions.

But USF Regional Chancellor Arthur Guildford said the university’s existing business administration programs could easily be tailored to the health industry.

Guildford also said USF has seen little demand for special education and early childhood programs, prompting them to suspend the programs until interest returns.

USF’s request to SCF for more information on the new degree programs were denied, he said.

“We can only surmise by the title of their programs there is great overlap,” Guildford said. “We have followed what is required by state due process. Apparently they’re enjoying great fun airing what they want to do in the public.”

Florida community colleges lead the country when it comes to offering four-year degree programs, largely because the state system gives them a great deal of power.

Community colleges report to a different governing board than the rest of the state’s four-year universities. And there is no guarantee the Florida Board of Colleges and the state Department of Education that oversees them will be considering the interest of the universities.

That structure essentially has no one looking out for the interest of the higher education system as a whole, and what role each institution will play in it.

The Board of Colleges does welcome feedback on four-year degree proposals from universities, but it does not necessarily have to do anything with it.

“Really, there needs to be not just a referee but someone who is helping articulate what the jobs of the two institutions really are,” Fitzgerald said. “These are two institutions that are crucial to the economic development of this community. The last thing we want or need is conflict between the two of them that might lead to the ineffective use of scarce resources.”

Copyright 2009 Sarasota Herald-Tribune Co.
All Rights Reserved

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