TAMPA - The idea was derided as a "half-baked scheme" by the state Democratic Party, and a state Board of Education member blasted it as a gimmick. But this week, officials at St. Petersburg College said they have organized and can offer as early as this fall a $10,000 four-year degree program called for in November by Gov. Rick Scott. "We did it; the whole program is in place," said Sharon Setterlind, dean of SPC's college of computer and information technology. "I'm excited about it. I really am." St. Petersburg joins a dozen other colleges in the 23-member Florida College System that say they'll be ready with a $10,000 baccalaureate degree by this fall. All 23 have committed to eventually making it happen.
The $10,000 tab does not include the cost of books and materials, which can run over $1,000 a year. It doesn't include meals and housing, which the University of South Florida estimates at nearly $9,000 a year. A typical full-time student taking a full load in the fall and spring semesters for four years would pay about $14,000 at SPC, not counting fees. "The spirit of the $10,000 degree was how we as institutions can change our processes to make it cost less," said Jesse Coraggio, associate vice president of institutional effectiveness, research and grants. "Not just charge less, but make it cost less." To do that, SPC organized its program around a degree in technology development and management. Subconcentrations would be data analytics or software development. These areas were targeted in response to an October 2012 workforce survey conducted by WorkNet Pinellas and economic development groups on both sides of Tampa Bay, Setterlind said. The report called for real-world training for high-demand tech jobs, among other things. Candidates for the program would need 12 to 15 dual-enrollment or other college-level credits to enter. Among the area's tech-oriented students, SPC identified 271 new graduates from Pinellas County who meet that qualification. Students would be expected to attend SPC year-round, taking a full load of 12 credits in the fall and spring and seven in the summer. With the already-accrued credits from high school, that would allow the students to earn a bachelor's of applied science degree in 3½ years with 120 credits. The candidates will have to have a C average or better to ensure that few drop classes and jeopardize the $10,000 tab. And incoming students will travel through the program together as a cohort, ensuring they have one another for support - "essentially a small learning community," Corragio said. Addressing the real-world training component of the workforce survey, the students will job-shadow during their first year, hold internships during the middle years, and eventually serve in a sort of apprenticeship program with one of the tech companies cooperating with SPC. That will make them more appealing to employers, who typically seek experienced staff, Setterlind said. The 271 students have been contacted about entering the $10,000 program, but SPC organizers acknowledged a problem with timing: Since the targets are relatively high achievers, most already have locked into their fall 2013 college plans. But if there is interest, the program will be in place. There may be a slow rollout in the spring semester, Coraggio said, but the big rollout will be in the fall of 2014. "The timeline will be to address those students from a marketing perspective in their senior year," he said. "We think there will be a much better opportunity as we move into next fall because we'll be able to market to these students as seniors and they'll better match those specific requirements as we go in." The 271 students originally considered are from Pinellas high schools, but the $10,000 degree program will be open to all. Scott traveled to St. Petersburg in November to challenge the state college system to create a $10,000 degree program. SPC was among the first to sign on. "I am pleased that St. Petersburg College has accepted my challenge and is offering a $10,000 bachelor's degree in fields that will provide graduates with the best opportunity for employment," the governor said in a statement this week. His challenge did not apply to the state's public universities, where in-state tuition and fees can exceed $6,000 each year. And schools such as Hillsborough Community College that don't offer four-year degrees were not involved. Not everyone welcomed the governor's challenge when it was issued. "Another day, another half-baked scheme," wrote the Democratic Party of Florida. Roberto Martinez, then-vice chairman of the state Board of Education, called it "a very bad idea." He said the $10,000 degree "is not a serious policy. It will be perceived as a gimmick pretending to be a policy used as a sound bite." Florida's $10,000 degree effort comes on the heels of a similar push in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry came up with the idea in 2011 to combat the problem of rising tuition and student debt. Two-thirds of U.S. college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt that averaged $26,600, according to the Institute for College Access and Success' Project on Student Debt. In Florida, the figure is 51 percent with an average debt load of $23,054. Setterlind said the $10,000 tech degree program will spread. "It's a model I think can really be shared with any other programs," she said. j firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 259-7834