Dr. Stephens Shares Insight About Florida’s Economy on PBS Newshour
Dr. Norman L. Stephens Jr., South Florida Community College president, appeared on the April 12 PBS Newshour segment, “Tampa’s Troubled Economic Recovery.”
Recorded at WEDU studios in Tampa, the segment is part of a series PBS is producing on Florida’s “boom-to-bust” economy. The moderator, PBS Newshour senior correspondent Gwen Ifill, asked Dr. Stephens to share his perspective as a community college president in a county where unemployment has quadrupled over the past five years.
Other panelists were Chuck Thomas, an unemployed electrician who has returned to college, Jennifer Orr-Bryan, an unemployed retail worker who is struggling to modify her home mortgage, and Holly Tomlin, an employment counselor.
Dr. Stephens commented on how the weak economy is driving college enrollment, what returning students hope to gain from education, and how federal and state funding is serving the influx of new students.
“Enrollment has been up 25 percent in the last three years,” Dr. Stephens told Ifill, noting that out-of-work and underemployed people tend to return to school during difficult economic times. “It’s a good thing because it helps them realize new opportunities in the future,” he said.
These returning students want a number of different things from education, Dr. Stephens explained. “Certainly, they’re looking for careers that may be more secure. For example, in the allied health/nursing area, we’re seeing a number of students who are interested in pursuing those careers because it means greater job security.” However, Dr. Stephens pointed out, the largest increase in enrollment is coming from students pursuing a more traditional educational path. In the past three years, the number of students entering two-year associate degree programs, with the goal of pursuing bachelor’s degrees, has grown by 30 percent.
Although Dr. Stephens admitted that declining state revenues have decreased state funding for community colleges, that deficit has been offset to some degree by federal funding. “We receive federal funds to help us with our vocational programs that are very expensive. Carl Perkins Grants help us pay for equipment and keep us state-of-the-art. Also, in our case, over 80 percent of our students receive some type of financial assistance, and much of that is through the federal government.
“On the other hand, tuition has gone up – in our case 24 percent,” Dr. Stephens continued. “Enrollment has increased, so the tuition revenues coming in partially offset the reduction in state revenues. But the government helps in a number of ways.”
Thomas and Orr-Bryan are both looking to education as a road out of unemployment. Thomas has gone back to college in the hope that additional education will lead to employment and job security. Orr-Bryan, who is also unemployed, is considering being retrained to work in homeland security.
“Tampa’s Troubled Economic Recovery” can be viewed online at www.pbs.org/newshour/video/.