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    Study: Little need for more universities

    A non-profit group looks at the undergraduate degree opportunities available in five counties, including Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota.

    By BARRY KLEIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000


    A study commissioned by state lawmakers offers little support for the push to create new universities in Florida, including in Pinellas County, where a state senator wants to spin off a campus of the University of South Florida.

    The study by the Education Commission of the States notes that Pinellas was not well served by USF in the past. But it says the university is now "moving rapidly to address the concerns of the community, strengthen the branch campus offerings and expand access to complete upper-division programs."

    It says the percentage of Pinellas students who go on to college already is higher than the state average.

    The study, in fact, concludes that the presence of a main university campus in a county "seems to have little relationship to students' plans to go to college, to choices of institutions and to college-going rates."

    That's all good news to USF administrators, who want dearly to keep control of their branch campuses in Pinellas and Sarasota/Manatee counties.

    USF president Judy Genshaft has proposed giving the St. Petersburg branch greater authority over tenure, promotion and budgeting decisions. She has offered to expand course offerings, and to provide more classroom space in Sarasota by purchasing a new site for the campus.

    "The study certainly doesn't say we need a new university in Pinellas County," said Bill Heller, the top administrator at the St. Petersburg campus. "What it seems to say is we have the right kind of arrangement, but that we need to make it better."

    The study is one of several requested by legislators at the urging of state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, who is concerned that many areas of Florida do not have adequate access to higher education.

    The non-profit commission was asked to look specifically at the undergraduate degree opportunities in five counties -- Broward, Volusia, Pinellas and Sarasota/Manatee.

    Lawmakers want to know whether those areas need state universities of their own.

    Sullivan said Wednesday he hasn't seen the report and could not comment.

    Bill Proctor, the executive director of the Postsecondary Education Planning Commission, an advisory group that is reviewing the study for the Legislature, said the report was not intended to answer the question of whether Florida needs new public universities.

    Proctor said it was designed to determine whether employer needs are being met in those counties.

    The answer in Pinellas, at least, is yes; Two-thirds of the employers surveyed said they were satisfied with the supply of college-educated employees in the area.

    The report, however, does include several criticisms of the status quo at USF's branches.

    It notes that many of the degree programs being offered are not complete, making it harder for students to graduate. The St. Petersburg campus has 18 partial programs; the Sarasota branch has 17.

    Both campuses fail to offer any degree programs in several high-demand areas, such as computer science, engineering and health professions.

    But the study also notes that only Broward County can expect enough population growth over the next decade to justify a significant increase in undergraduate capacity. In Pinellas, for example, growth is projected at about 6 percent. That is considerably less than the 16 percent expected statewide.

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