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The TaxWatch Research Blog is a forum where our research staff can address topics and issues in a short format. Keep an eye on this space during Legislative Session for frequent posts making sense of the activity at the Capitol. 

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Independent Assessment of the Economic Impacts of the Florida College System

From the Wall Street Journal to Cosmopolitan magazine, there has been a discussion about the role of higher education and the suitability of the traditional four-year college experience for many students.  Many students are unsure about what they want to study, and others are looking for a more affordable college education. 

Thought-leaders and researchers, like the Washington Post Editorial Board and the Brookings Institution, have questioned for years the wisdom of the traditional college system as a one-size-fits-all model.  The Florida College System – encompassing 28 institutions that were originally (collectively) called Junior Colleges, and later Community Colleges, and have at various times and in different areas been referred to as ‘vocational education’ or ‘trade schools’ – is a key part of this discussion.

The Florida College System (FCS) is the primary access point to undergraduate education for more than 800,000 Floridians, including approximately 63 percent of recent high school graduates and returning adult students. The 28 member colleges of the FCS provide low-cost, high-quality educational programs designed to meet the regional workforce needs of employers. Nearly all (99 percent) FCS students come from within Florida. FCS institutions provide a wide range of classes and programs to fit the busy schedules of its students, who are often caring for dependents and working full time.

In 2001, the Legislature authorized community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in areas of high demand, and St. Petersburg College was the first college to offer these degrees. By 2014, 24 of the 28 FCS member institutions offered at least one bachelor’s degree program.  By authorizing FCS member institutions to award baccalaureate degrees, the Legislature has afforded Florida’s large population of non-traditional and/or place-bound college students opportunities (which would not otherwise be available) to earn baccalaureate degrees. Governor DeSantis’ January 30, 2019 Executive Order challenges Florida policymakers to better prepare our students for college and workforce success.

The FCS offers many benefits to students, including:

  • Affordability --- in-state tuition and fees are much more reasonable than tuition and fees at four-year institutions. 
  • Flexibility --- students, especially those who struggled in high school or who are unsure about making the investment of time and money to go to college, can go at their own pace.
  • School-life balance --- affords non-traditional students (e.g., older students, parents, etc.) an opportunity to balance going to college with career or family obligations.
  • More personalized attention --- smaller class sizes mean more personal attention and more one-on-one time with instructors.
  • Certificates --- FCS institutions offer professional certificates in high-paying fields such as electronic and information technology.
  • Transfer agreements --- FCS institutions offer qualified students automatic admittance to a state public university and transfer of their credit hours toward a baccalaureate degree.

The primary mission of FCS institutions is responding to community needs for postsecondary academic education and career degree education. This includes being responsible for:

  • Providing lower level undergraduate instruction and awarding associate degrees;
  • Preparing students directly for careers requiring less than baccalaureate degrees (e.g., career education);
  • Providing student development services, including assessment, student tracking, support for disabled students, advisement, counseling, financial aid, career development, and remedial and tutorial services, to ensure student success;
  • Promoting economic development for the state within each Florida College System institution district through the provision of special programs, including, but not limited to, Enterprise Florida-related programs, technology transfer centers, economic development centers, and workforce literacy programs;
  • Providing dual enrollment instruction; and
  • Providing upper level instruction and awarding baccalaureate degrees as specifically authorized by law.

A separate and secondary role for FCS institutions includes the offering of programs in community services that are not directly related to academic or occupational advancement; adult education services, including adult basic education, adult general education, adult secondary education, and high school equivalency examination instruction; and recreational and leisure services.

Postsecondary academic and career education programs and adult general education programs have first priority in FCS institution funding. Community service programs must be presented to the Legislature for funding consideration, along with the rationale for state funding. The Legislature may identify priority areas for use of these funds.

In partnership with the Association of Florida Colleges and the (then) Chancellor of the Florida College System Madeline Pumariega – and with a grant from The Helios Education Foundation – Florida TaxWatch undertook an independent, evidence-based analysis to:

  • Compare the performance of the FCS to community colleges in other states; and, 
  • Quantify the economic impact of an FCS degree, in terms of both personal earnings and economic value to the state 

In addition to the usual methods of comparative analysis (comparing FCS’s metrics on key measures to other states, such as tuition and fees, graduation rates, and enrollment), this analysis provides the results of econometric modeling – specifically the Regional Economic Model (REMI) – to project the direct, indirect, and induced economic impacts of the FCS and to calculate the state’s return on investment.

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