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SPJC plan for higher degrees in spotlight

Educators at other institutions fret that students might be lured away, but others see a need for a four-year school in North Pinellas.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001

Educators are closely watching St. Petersburg Junior College's efforts to award bachelor's degrees at its Tarpon Springs campus in 2002.

Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, has led the charge to make Pinellas County home to Florida's next four-year college and plans to introduce a bill this week proposing sweeping changes to SPJC. If the proposal passes, SPJC could offer bachelor's degrees at its other campuses.

While some educators point to statistics showing the need for a four-year college in northern Pinellas County, others aren't as confident.

At least one community college president is concerned the proposal could lure away students from his campus and is taking steps to make sure that doesn't happen.

Robert Judson, president of Pasco-Hernando Community College, has talked with legislators, including Sullivan, about his concerns and asked to be named to an advisory committee that would oversee SPJC's plans.

Judson said he wants SPJC to only recruit junior and senior level students from Pasco and Hernando counties.

And a dean at the University of South Florida says he will wait and see whether there is a need for another four-year college in Pinellas County.

"I think there's a definite need for a junior college and a university," said Bill Heller, dean of USF's St. Petersburg campus. "Whether or not there's room for two four-year institutions, I think that's what's going to be determined in the next several years."

SPJC President Carl Kuttler sees a need in North Pinellas.

"If you're in south Pasco county, the (USF St. Petersburg) campus doesn't do anything for you," he said. "What this does is put us within the doorstep of a lot more people."

But access isn't the problem when it comes to attracting education students. Instead, low pay for teachers and a continued emphasis on high-stakes testing are just two reasons few students enroll in education courses, Heller said.

"We could build our capacity here, but you have to get students interested in going into teaching," he said.

And the need may not be as dire as Kuttler and others say.

Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Howard Hinesley said the district hasn't had extreme trouble filling teaching positions.

"We've been fairly fortunate with being able to meet our goals in terms of numbers," Hinesley said. Still, the district has had trouble attracting math, science and special education teachers.

In the past year, Pinellas has been more aggressive and attracted new teachers by giving them advanced contracts. Hinesley said he is willing to extend that same offer to those in the SPJC program.

Despite the opinions of some, Kuttler and others are convinced the county would benefit from a second four-year college, now that USF started offering freshman and sophomore level courses at its St. Petersburg campus in 1999.

Only 19 percent of those in Pinellas over age 25 have bachelor's degrees compared with 21 percent in the state, according to a Florida Postsecondary Education Planning Commission study of the need for degrees in five counties.

Pinellas employers will need to fill 2,300 jobs requiring bachelor's degrees each year through 2007 in such fields as management and teaching, and Pinellas residents and business leaders reported the one thing that stood in the way of their education was the one-hour commute to the University of South Florida's main campus in Tampa.

Sullivan's bill sets up a committee of SPJC and USF officials, and possibly other college presidents, to help ward off any turf battles.

SPJC is a sprawling system. It has nine locations throughout the county. Five are traditional campuses: Tarpon Springs, Clearwater, Seminole, St. Petersburg's Gibbs campus and the downtown St. Petersburg campus. Four other sites provide technical training: the Allstate Center in St. Petersburg, the Caruth Health Education Center in Pinellas Park, the ICOT Corporate Training Center in Clearwater and the STAR Center in Seminole.

A 10th campus, called the Epicenter, is scheduled to open across from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport in 2003 and provide electrical engineering degrees and master's in business administration degrees.

Kuttler said SPJC doesn't want to establish a four-year program in downtown St. Petersburg, where a partnership is already flourishing. He also said he doesn't want to lose the College University Center, which has formed partnerships with at least nine colleges and universities throughout the state to provide bachelor's and master's degrees on SPJC campuses.

SPJC was pleasantly surprised when 750 students flooded its doors last fall in pursuit of bachelor's and master's degrees at the College University Center at Clearwater and Seminole campuses. Estimates project those numbers will soar to a total of 3,000 in three years.

Kuttler is hopeful Sullivan's proposal will receive a similar welcome.

"I have been moved by the response from the community," he said. "What this issue was all about for Sen. Sullivan was access."

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