NAPLES — Casey Buettner gave college a chance.
He enrolled at Edison State College in Southwest Florida, but something about the college experience didn’t click. So the 21-year-old left Edison and enrolled in Collier County in an automotive program at Lorenzo Walker Institute of Technology, where he’s expected to graduate this summer.
I always knew I wanted to do this, he said.
He is one of about 800 students enrolled in postsecondary programs at the East Naples technical center.
Though interest in technical centers has remained steady through the years, officials say a push to change the schools’ names to technical colleges may have changed the way people look at the career centers.
“It’s been a trend for 20 or 30 years that everyone has to go to college,” said Yolanda Flores, the principal of Lorenzo Walker Institute of Technology and its companion school, Lorenzo Walker Technical High School. “There is a stigma still very much connected to the era when I grew up, when it was vo-tech. There were career paths you chose as a high school student: You either chose to go on a vocational track or a college track. Things have changed over the years. It’s no long either-or. It’s college- and career-ready.”
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State Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, proposed a measure (HB 7057) this past legislative session that would have given technical career centers such as Lorenzo Walker Institute of Technology and the Immokalee Technical Center the OK to call themselves technical colleges.
The proposal also would have allowed career centers to offer college credit certificate programs and would have created a process schools could have followed to eventually offer associate in applied science degrees.
“What it does is it changes the perception,” Rodrigues said. “Over the last five years, enrollment has gone down 15 percent. If we change the perception, we can reverse that trend.”
The measure passed the state House 116-0 on March 27. Yet it failed to advance in the Senate, in part because of some members’ concerns about the mission growing into what other institutions already do.
“I believe there was concern in the Senate that saw some mission creep with community colleges, and they didn’t want to see the same thing with these technical centers,” Rodrigues said. “That’s where I believe the hang-up was in the Senate.”
He’s right, said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
Negron said allowing more colleges in the state — just as lawmakers were trying to tamp down the expansion of four-year degrees at state colleges — would have complicated matters.
“Allowing technical centers to call themselves colleges, in my opinion, would have allowed more confusion,” he said.
Negron, chairman of the Senate’s appropriations committee, included language in the state’s $77.1 billion budget to put a one-year pause on new baccalaureate degrees at state colleges through May 31, 2015.
There are 179 baccalaureate programs offered in the state’s college system. The one-year pause will allow state officials to have a discussion about “what is the primary role and mission of our state colleges.”
Negron said that “even though technical centers have an important role” in their communities, he couldn’t back a measure to allow more degree programs — and more colleges — just as officials are beginning to evaluate the existing system.
Denis Wright, provost and vice president of Edison’s academic affairs, said he doesn’t think the measure would have had a big effect on Edison State College. The school already has strong ties to Southwest Florida’s technical career centers.
Still, the Fort Myers-based college has experienced a shift over the years in the type of student attending.
“We’re seeing an increase from the number of students coming straight out of high school,” said Christine Davis, vice president of student affairs and enrollment management. “We saw, in Collier County, a 12 percent increase from fall 2012 to fall 2013 enrolling right out of high school.”
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Sue Roshon, director of adult and career education for the Lee County school district, said the average age of a student enrolled in a postsecondary program is about 30. They were in the workforce for a while, and either the job went away or they wanted to do something different.
“It is a different type of person,” she said. “They thought they were going to go to college, and it didn’t work out. So they came back.”
Roshon said the idea that everyone needs to go to college sometimes deters students from enrolling in technical centers. The ability to change the name to a technical college may have changed that.
“I don’t think it’s going to change until our society changes its perception,” she said. “Parents have that expectation that their children are going to be doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs. The only way it is going to change is when society changes its perception that a dirty, hard work kind of job is the only thing you can get from a technical center.”
Flores, of Lorenzo Walker, said she’s hopeful the proposal will come back up, particularly because many other states already call their technical programs technical colleges.
“We’re kind of the odd bird that people don’t understand. We’re not a high school necessarily,” she said. “We don’t have the label of college. Some people forget it is a postsecondary institution. Where do you fit into the mix?”
The centers have a friend in Rodrigues, who said he intends to file a similar bill during the 2015 legislative session. That measure, he said, won’t be bogged down with the additional degree programs; instead, he said, it will focus on the name change and allowing schools to offer college career certificates.
“These career centers, which are administered through our school districts, are real jewels,” he said.