WHEN FLORIDA OPENED THE door 17 years ago for two-year colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, they expanded rapidly into a host of new areas: business, nursing, teaching, and more. St. Petersburg College alone created 25 bachelor’s programs. Thousands of students flocked to them, paying a fraction of what they would pay for an equivalent degree at the University of Florida. By 2014 nearly 6,000 students a year were earning their bachelor’s degrees from a community college. Despite their popularity, many people feared that the 28 taxpayer-financed community colleges were unnecessarily duplicating programs at the state’s 12 four-year public universities—and then awarding them substandard degrees. As a result, Florida’s legislature put a one-year moratorium on new programs, and then officials slowed down the creation of new ones after 2015.
Now a team of University of Florida researchers has looked back at the results of this experiment and come to a surprising conclusion: four-year state schools actually saw an increase in business even as two-year institutions expanded into their terrain. But for-profit, private universities generally took a big hit. While four-year public schools awarded 25 percent more degrees a year in the programs where local community colleges offered a competing degree, the private for-profit universities saw their degree output fall 45 percent when a nearby two-year institution posed direct competition. The results of the study were slated to be released Monday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New York.