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Local college leaders encouraged

MANATEE — Local colleges heard a rallying cry from President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address.

Then, just hours later, they got a $7.1 billion promise from Gov. Charlie Crist that the resources to do the work are on the way.

Obama punctuated his jobs- and economy-driven speech Wednesday night by urging passage of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which would end federal subsidies to banks for college aid and use the money to provide tax credits for tuition and increases in Pell Grants.

“I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families,” Obama said.

Lars Hafner, president of State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, welcomed the president’s call.

“It was exciting to hear community colleges singled out in the State of the Union speech because, just as President Obama said, higher education is the pathway to a better life for so many families,” Hafner said. “At SCF, we see that every day in students’ lives that are transformed through opportunity that higher education affords.”

Arthur Guilford, the regional chancellor at University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee, said Obama’s focus on preparing young people for the work force fits their mission.

“My only surprise is that he said community colleges instead of just higher education in general. I’m delighted,” Guilford said. “If you get more students going to community college, you’ll have more students in the pipeline to go to four-year colleges.”

Crist outlined his 2010-11 budget priorities Thursday for the state’s colleges and universities. The $7.1 billion plan includes a $67 million increase for Florida’s 28 community colleges to meet rising enrollment without increasing tuition, and a $100 million increase in state university spending.

“This $100 million continues our commitment toward reconfiguring Florida’s economy,” Crist said during a Webcast from the University of South Florida in Tampa. “You know everything’s about the economy and it should be.”

At New College of Florida, a four-year liberal arts school, officials are excited about the “knowledge economy” concept espoused by Crist and the Board of Governors. It places emphasis on research and education in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine.

“New College couldn’t agree more with that,” said Jake Hartvigsen, the school’s director of public affairs. “We’re big supporters of the Board of Governors’ plan.”

Hafner praised two related points in Obama’s speech: the emphasis on innovation and clean-energy jobs, which he said are “the underpinning of our proposed workforce baccalaureate degree in energy technology.”

Both Obama and Crist encouraged colleges and universities to hold the line on tuition costs. Crist proposed no tuition increase for resident undergraduates at state universities in 2010-11.

But the colleges are feeling the economic crunch like students and families, they say.

“What we’re seeing with the economy is that there are many families facing increasing hardships that impacts their decision about higher education,” Hartvigsen said. “We support anything that makes college more affordable for students.

“I think Gov. Crist’s proposal will be discussed and given full consideration,” he said. “But we must recognize this is a complicated issue. We must make sure we are covering the cost of educating students and remaining competitive with other states.”

The Crist budget

The higher education spending recommendation is one of several budget elements that Crist has been announcing on an almost daily basis for the past week.

The governor today will present his complete budget proposal to the Legislature.

Some of the recommendations announced so far have been met with skepticism by legislative leaders. They’ve pointed out the recession-battered state is facing a potential gap of up to $3.2 billion between estimated revenue and the growing cost of critical programs such as public schools and Medicaid.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.