CLEARWATER, Fla. -- In a high-ceilinged classroom, bright sun poking through the blinds and reflecting off the whiteboard, eight students lug heavy textbooks to their desks and prepare for this afternoons lesson:
Its an unusually small group for a bachelors degree-level course in biology. At four-year universities, classes like this are often taught in large and impersonal lecture halls, and might have hundreds of students.
But this is not a university. There arent any dorms, the low-rise buildings on the campus are largely basic and utilitarian, and most of the other students are studying toward associates _ not bachelors _ degrees.
Its St. Petersburg College, formerly St. Petersburg Junior College, one of an increasing number of community colleges around the country that have started offering four-year bachelors degrees in fields for which there is high job demand.
Critics and supporters of the trend say alternately that it is helping fill an important social need most universities arent, or that its an ego-driven, money-wasting cry for prestige and respect from institutions at the low end of the higher education hierarchy.
Whatever their motivation, community colleges in 21 states now have the authority to offer bachelors degrees, including 25 of the 28 in Florida; St. Petersburg College alone has 25 baccalaureate programs, the most among former two-year schools.
Students are responding with enthusiasm. The number enrolling at former community colleges in Florida alone to get bachelors degrees has nearly quadrupled to more than 30,000 in just five years. And there seems to be one principal reason: Its cheaper and more convenient than attending a four-year university, especially for working parents and part-time students, who make up a large proportion of community college attendees.
The cost of a baccalaureate course at St. Petersburg College is $118.70 per credit hour, compared to $211.19 at the nearby University of South Florida. And the difference is widening. Full-time tuition and fees per year for a bachelors degree at a Florida community college is $3,541, compared with $6,069 at a public university, a difference of $2,258 _ up from a difference of $1,853 in 2011.
Its not so much of a dent in my pocket, said Regine Gay, one of the students in that biology class, who plans to become a pharmacist. Others said they were saving money _ and avoiding distractions _ by living at home.
This has definitely helped me focus again, said Courtney Maxa, who transferred to St. Petersburg College from a four-year university and works part-time at a restaurant to pay her bills while living with her parents.
Universities and their advocates, however, are less than happy with the developments.
Colorado legislators approved letting community colleges offer four-year degrees only after satisfying Colorado State University and the University of Colorado _ whose lobbying was blamed for killing a previous version of a proposal _ that they would be limited to career and technical fields such as culinary arts and dental hygiene.
In Michigan, similar legislation was passed over the concerted, years-long opposition of that states public universities, which said letting community colleges offer bachelors degrees was mission creep, blurs the distinction between different branches of higher education and raises quality concerns. In the end, the community colleges were limited to baccalaureate programs in maritime studies, culinary arts, energy production and concrete technology.
But community college students in Michigan can already transfer for upper-level courses to the public universities, many of which also offer bachelors degree programs on their campuses, said Matthew McLogan, vice president for university relations at Grand Valley State University.
If there were degrees that were missing or additional capacity required, that was the model that should have been followed, he said.
Bachelors degrees at community colleges remain controversial even in states that already allow them. In Florida, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Republican Sen. Joe Negron, has called for stopping that states community colleges _ now all called simply colleges _ from adding any more bachelors degree programs without approval from the legislature, saying that they duplicate whats already offered at the public universities.
Hes also proposed taking 10 percent of the $34 million a year used collectively by Florida community colleges to confer bachelors degrees and giving it to Florida State University and the University of Florida.
That makes Kenneth Walker, founder and former chairman of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, convinced that universities opposition to baccalaureate programs at community colleges comes down to the money. And from my perspective, the focus ought to be on meeting the needs of the students, meeting the needs of business and industry, and if that is the focus, then I dont understand why the universities are opposing it.
A potential compromise in Florida would let the colleges to keep the money for now but would impose a one-year moratorium on new bachelors degree programs while a study is conducted to make sure that the existing ones dont compete with what the universities offer.
He doesnt think they do.
Universities arent oriented toward workforce-type programs in fields that increasingly require bachelors degrees, Walker said. This really is a new need that emerged when the associate degree was no longer adequate to be competitive in the job market. Thats why youre seeing this tremendous increase.
Now California is considering the idea, which has been proposed in its state legislature, and failed, three times since 2009. If the latest attempt succeeds, students could begin studying toward bachelors degrees at some of Californias 112 community colleges by next year.
A study by an advisory board said this merits serious review, pointing out that existing projections show that demand for college-educated workers will so outstrip supply by 2025 that the state will have to increase the number of bachelors degrees awarded annually by 60,000, a 40 percent increase, just to keep up. But the board also raised concerns about whether Californias thinly stretched community colleges could afford to add such programs.
Baccalaureate faculty at community colleges in Florida concede they have to be creative since they dont have university-level resources. To do their lab work, students in the biology program at St. Petersburg College go on field trips to government agencies, private companies and hospitals.
Thats a really good way to get around not having enough money, said Michelle Osovitz, a Stanford-trained biologist who teaches there. We have to scrounge.
Before class gets under way, Maxa laughs when asked if people are surprised to find out where shes getting her bachelors degree.
Oh, yeah, Ive heard that, she said. Youre getting your degree at a community college? I just laugh it off. Its a four-year accredited college. Its funny more than anything.
Added classmate Lesya Kim: My friends at universities were, like, Youre the smart one.
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.