Lakewood Ranch Herald

MCC gets ball rolling toward 4-year degrees

Manatee Community College has taken its first step in the process of offering four-year degrees.

On Tuesday, the MCC board of trustees gave approval for MCC President Lars Hafner to send a letter of intent to the Florida commissioner of education about offering prospective four-year degrees.

The Florida community college system has been dismantled. In its place is a three-tier operation that encompasses universities, community colleges and state colleges. So far, 14 of the 28 community colleges have signed on to become state colleges offering four-year degrees. Six others have shown interest.

"You know this is a very big moment for MCC," said board member Ron Allen.

But the decision to move forward hasn't come without input from community leaders, which Hafner sought at the request of the board.

Over the past month, Hafner met with about 18 community and business leaders in Manatee and Sarasota who encouraged MCC to pursue four-year degrees. The aim of the transition to four-year degrees flows from demand for employees in certain fields.

MCC will consider offering bachelor's degrees in math, science, nursing and applied sciences. Applied sciences would include various tracks, such as environmental studies, exercise science and nutrition, health care management, nonprofit leadership and management, radiologic sciences, and technology management.

"We're always trying to be on the pulse," Hafner said in an interview after the meeting. "We will strive to meet those needs as a major player in the economic engine."

MCC would likely begin the four-year programs by January 2010, Hafner said.

To further analyze the need, MCC will be hosting a critical needs summit and having talks with University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee about how to fill any gaps.

University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee is working toward becoming fully accredited by 2010. The university could then offer master's degrees, an important step that would strengthen the partnership with MCC in giving the community an opportunity for education through graduate school, Hafner said.

"We should all be working in the taxpayers' interest to avoid duplication," he said.

What's more enticing to become a state college is the funding model. Community colleges now are funded based on a three-year rolling average enrollment, but the four-year funding model allows funding based on anticipated enrollment.

Vernon DeSear, spokesman for Manatee Memorial Hospital and Lakewood Medical Center, said that a four-year degree program in nursing would be welcomed at area hospitals. Talks have been underway between hospitals and MCC about the potential four-year degree program, which would help supply hospitals with a skilled workforce. Many nurses want to continue their education to get a bachelor of science in nursing without having to leave the area.

"We have been requesting that our local colleges and universities look at advanced degrees because we have so many students looking for those degrees," DeSear said.

Another potential change to funding could come by way of Amendment 8, which is on the ballot in November. If adopted, the measure would allow community colleges to lobby local residents to pass a tax that could create another revenue stream to fund community colleges.

The board debated whether to support the amendment. In a tough economic times, they found it difficult to sway the public to pay more local taxes and voted for MCC to oppose the amendment.

Initially, they discussed taking a neutral stance waiting for the outcome of the referendum, which has to be passed by 60 percent.

Some board members thought it important to take a stance on the amendment, one way or the other.

"This is really a turning point," said board member Christine Robinson. "We need to make a decision now."

But board member Kelvin Lumpkin believed that rallying the community support for funding through local taxes may be more difficult if the college initially opposed the amendment before it passed.

"We may have to come back and ask the same community for money," he said.

Hafner said he believes that it's difficult to get local support when a community college represents more than one county.

"What that says is if one county passes it and one county doesn't, we don't get the money," he said.