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    Panel approves SPJC plan for 4-year degrees

    The plan would allow SPJC to award bachelor's degrees in teaching, nursing and technology.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- For nearly 75 years, St. Petersburg Junior College has played a changing role in higher education in Tampa Bay, and no one knows the history like Carl Kuttler, SPJC president for 23 years.

    His school was founded as a private college in 1927. It switched to a 3-year college during World War II and became a public two-year community college after the war.

    Now Kuttler wants SPJC to have a new identity with the help of state lawmakers -- the first community college in Florida to award four-year college degrees.

    The proposal passed its first hurdle in the Legislature on Tuesday when the Senate Education Committee approved legislation to allow SPJC to award bachelor's degrees in teaching, nursing and technology.

    SPJC would become "St. Petersburg College and University Center."

    At the same meeting, senators approved a bill that would create New College, a Sarasota liberal arts program that has been part of the University of South Florida since 1975, as Florida's 11th public university.

    In addition, the bill would give considerable autonomy to USF's Sarasota/Manatee branch campus, though it would remain under USF's umbrella.

    The Sarasota legislation is being pushed by powerful Senate President John McKay. Similar legislation has been filed to give USF's St. Petersburg campus greater autonomy, but it has not been heard in committee.

    Together, the changes would create a new landscape for Florida's higher education system, adding a new university, expanding the power of branch campuses and upsetting the traditional role of community colleges as two-year programs that allow students to finish their degrees at four-year universities.

    Not everyone is expected to be on board with the changes.

    In the past, Gov. Jeb Bush has shown little enthusiasm for converting branch campuses into independent schools or creating more universities.

    However, in the case of SPJC, Bush is "generally supportive of looking at concepts that are innovative, particularly in areas that address critical shortages such as teaching and nursing," Bush spokeswoman Liz Hirst said. "He would favor partnerships between universities and community colleges."

    But the SPJC plan goes beyond a partnership.

    Under the legislation, SPJC is given authority to seek accreditation to grant bachelor's degrees in nursing, elementary education, special education, secondary education and applied science. After four years, it could begin granting bachelor's degrees in other programs with approval from a coordinating board that would include the president of USF.

    SPJC will be able to charge more for junior and senior level courses, but the cost must be less than public university tuition for those types of courses.

    The sponsor of the SPJC legislation, Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, said the plan may encounter more resistance than other higher education legislation because lawmakers are so accustomed to Florida's "two-plus-two" system that feeds community college graduates into public universities.

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