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Education

Florida community college system gets U.S. honors


Published:   |   Updated: June 27, 2013 at 07:22 AM

TAMPA - Jordan Lewis is zipping through an associate degree in liberal arts at Hillsborough Community College, where he'll finish at the end of the summer so he can transfer to Florida A&M to play baseball.

How does he feel about his stint at HCC?

"Nothin' but love," the 19-year-old says with a smile at the Ybor campus' library. "It's a good school. I would recommend it to anybody."

Lewis said he can understand why the Florida College System - with local schools helping lead the way - has been singled out by Community College Week as one of the highest-performing systems in the country in terms of the numbers of two-year degrees and certificates bestowed.

Florida colleges awarded 102,559 associate degrees in 2011-2012, second only to California's 114,612. Texas and New York enjoy population advantages over Florida, but award only about two-thirds of the degrees Florida colleges do.

HCC was No. 5 nationwide on the list of two-year colleges in degrees awarded, with 3,843 in 2011-12, up from 2,951 the year before. It was 15th overall in the nation if you include four-year colleges.

"It makes us feel good," said Ken Atwater, HCC's president. "It verifies that our efforts are working. We're extremely proud."

The key at HCC has been adopting "a culture to support completion," Atwater said. The traditional focus was on access at what were previously known as community colleges. That attracted a lot students less committed to academics.

At HCC, "not only are we going to continue that focus on access, but we've got to be just as focused on completion," At­water said.

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That means showing people how to get their degree through a targeted career program. Setting up student success centers on campuses for advising. Free tutoring. Targeting high-risk groups. Identifying the courses that students get hung up on then using different teaching methods and online support.

And little things, like not charging graduation fees.

"We removed barriers wherever we thought there was a barrier," Atwater said.

Such strategies have been effective across the state.

St. Petersburg College ranked 10th among four-year colleges nationwide. The school awarded 4,019 associate degrees in 2011-12, up from 3,518 the previous year, or 13th with all colleges combined.

Tonjua Williams, senior vice president of student services at St. Petersburg College, cited culture change at her school as well. The school has created early learning plans, an early-alert system that lets advisers know how their charges are performing, mandatory new student orientation and expanded out-of-classroom support. Advisers deal with personal and life advice as well as academic help.

"Everything we do is aimed toward student success," Williams said.

Seventeen of Florida's 28 colleges made Community College Week's Top 100 Associate Degree Producers list.

"I applaud the Florida College System for being ranked one of the top producers of associate degrees in the nation," said Gov. Rick Scott, a staunch advocate of the state college system. "All 28 Florida colleges this year accepted my challenge to offer four-year degrees for $10,000 or less in fields where students can get jobs. It's clear that Florida's College System cares about providing value to Florida students."

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The sheer number of degrees awarded may not be a definitive indicator of a school's success, of course. The American Association of Community Colleges ripped its own membership in a 2012 report that said at two-year institutions, student success rates were unacceptably low, employment preparation was linked too closely to job-market needs, and transitions among high schools, community colleges and baccalaureate institutions were flawed.

Norma Kent, senior vice president for communications and advancement at the association, said that wasn't necessarily the case in the Florida system.

"I'm really not surprised that Florida is doing very well," Kent said. "Florida has taken some steps that everyone agrees are aimed at helping more students complete" their degrees.

The alignment of state colleges and baccalaureate universities is close, she said, whereas students in many states have difficulty transferring.

Jeff White, 31, an Army reservist who has finished the Emergency Medical Technician program at HCC and is enrolling in its Fire Academy, is also taking classes toward a future baccalaureate degree. White praised the HCC administrators, instructors and advisers.

"They've been really good to me," he said. "The classes are well-organized and put together. The VA rep here is awesome. Financial advice, anything you need, they walk you through it."

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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