Over the last 16 years, the vast majority of community colleges in Florida have expanded to become state colleges. That's so they can offer four-year degrees, not just the two-year associate degrees.
Now Florida lawmakers are considering a bill that limits those expansions. And that move comes just as the smallest college in the state system, Florida Keys Community College, is taking its first steps toward offering four-year degrees.
The first students in FKCC's first baccalaureate program, in supervision and management, are enrolled in intensive eight-week courses that meet in the evening at the main campus on Stock Island. They're taught by Jemal Alston, chair of the business programs.
He welcomes them to the first class of Financial Management, and tells them that they can call him Dr. J.
"What we're going to talk about is how companies get their financing done," he tells them. "Whether it's through investments, whether it's through debt, whether it's through international trade, whether it's through mergers and acquisitions — how do they conduct their everyday business?"
This is not a class of 18-year-olds right out of high school. They all have some experience in the working world.
"There is no one in the program that has not worked this morning," Alston says.
Like Kecia Eleby, who joined the Navy right after high school and retired after "20 years, three months, two weeks, four days."
Eleby is pretty precise about time. That helps her manage her schedule. She works every day in a civilian job at the Navy's medical clinic in Key West, starting at 7 a.m. After work, "from 16:30 to 21:45 — that's 4:30 to 9:45 — I'm here on campus," she says.
She even comes to campus on weekends, to meet classmates for a study group. Also in the class and the study group is Neetu Jagasia, who graduated with an associate's degree from FKCC 14 years ago.
She had a scholarship to attend Florida International University, "but I met my ex-husband at that time and didn't want to leave," she says. "And then of course I got married and had kids and couldn't go anywhere. And I'm not one of those people who can do it online. I like the face-to-face interaction."
Jagasia signed up for the new program as soon as she heard about it.
"I was so excited," she said. "I couldn't wait to go back and finish my degree."
Jagasia works two jobs, for Delta Airlines and for a company that arranges logistics for private jets at the Key West Airport. And she likes her work, but says having a four-year degree will give her more options.
"I was a manager at Quizno's for six years and after that closed I was trying to find another job and realized how hard it is to find a job out here, especially if you don't have a degree," she says. "It kind of limits your possibilities. Everybody's looking for that degree."
Jonathan Gueverra is president of FKCC. He says it's one thing to tell students on the mainland that if they want a four-year degree, they should attend a state university.
"But here, when you are 130-plus miles away from the nearest land-based campus, it changes everything," he says.
Gueverra says the college wants to expand its four-year degree programs to include fields where there's lots of demand in the local workplace, like hospitality and nursing.
"If the need's not there, we don't do it," he said.
Gueverra is well aware of the push from Florida lawmakers to limit four-year programs at state colleges, and that it's happening just as FKCC is getting its first such program off the ground.
FKCC is the smallest college in the state system. And it's the farthest from Tallahassee.
"We've got to make sure that folks remember that we are here," he says.
But being small also has some benefits, as Alston has learned since he started teaching at FKCC a few months ago.
"I've taught at about five other universities," he says. "But for some reason, everybody here knows my name."
Florida Keys Community College is hoping to change its name this year, in line with other state institutions that have expanded their mission. If the Legislature approves, starting this summer FKCC will become the College of the Florida Keys.