Health risks of the coronavirus have led students from DeSoto and other nearby counties to opt for online courses from South Florida State College campuses this fall instead of attending universities.
The result: Student numbers at the Arcadia school and the college’s three other campuses exceed last year’s COVID-free fall term, DeSoto campus director Asena Mott said.
“The increase we have noticed has been more of students choosing to stay around rather than going to universities while the pandemic is around,” she said.
The main job for Mott and Dr. Thomas Leitzel, president of the four-campus college, is achieving a balance of safety and learning. The report card for the first month shows a passing grade, said Mott, in a late September interview.
“They are going well,” she said of the Aug. 21 start of a mix of classroom instruction, combinations of classroom and virtual learning, and full virtual instruction.
Student credit enrollments at the Arcadia, Wachula, Avon Park and Lake Placid campuses are up 3% over the fall term of 2019. The Arcadia campus signed up 322 students in advanced and professional instruction; 32 in vocational instruction and seven in supplemental instruction.
The advanced and professional instruction is delivered both from the classroom and online, while vocational instruction in power line work and construction trades is done face to face, including an evening corporate-sponsored welding class, Mott said.
The online enrollment trend for South Florida State College is similar to increases showing up at community colleges nationally, according to surveys that indicate concerns over COVID-19 are leading university students to opt for online classes from community colleges. They also are attracted by costs typically well below that of their universities and confidence the classes will count toward university degrees.
“Those credits are transferable without” difficulty, Mott said, and added SFSC’s $80 per credit hour are a strong enticement.
“There are some pretty good benefits for getting prerequisites here,” she said. “The classes are small, and they know you by name.”
A student from, say, Florida Gulf Coast University, who does not want to be on the Fort Myers campus this term and next can apply as a “transient” student. “The university would OK it before they take the course,” Mott said. “So, the student would be 100% guaranteed.”
In contrast to South Florida State’s 3% rise in enrollment, Florida university enrollments have dropped about 12%, according to Mott.
Like universities, South Florida State College has bachelor degree and post-graduate offerings. For instance, students can get a bachelor’s in business and supervisory management “either online or in person,” Mott said.
Gaining students in a pandemic is a feat to be cheered, noted Mott, an Arcadia native and holder of bachelor and advanced degrees from South Florida State College.
“I am so happy,” she said. “We are providing what the students need.”
Mott estimates that up to three-quarters of the instruction from the DeSoto County is online at the moment. At all four campuses, 80 percent of students are taking online or hybrid courses, the college says. The rest are enrolled in face-to-face classes.
On campus, classrooms are arranged to provide seating that meets CDC social distancing guidelines. Seat numbers are capped depending on a room’s square footage, according to Mott.
Students must wear masks inside the classrooms, she said. Instructors have the option to remove masks while delivering lectures, Mott added.
South Florida State College is one of 28 colleges in the Florida College system. Most were previously designated as community colleges and some, such as Tampa’s Hillsborough Community College, still are. Scholastic achievement numbers show the void the colleges are filling, especially in small town and rural communities.
In DeSoto County, only 16% of residents have an associate degree, a milestone that comes with completing two years of required instruction, Mott said.
Much of the curriculum — especially in business, the trades and nursing — is geared toward enhancing local employment opportunities for students and helping employers maintain a skilled and educated workforce, according to Mott. “The point of a community college is that we give them what is needed in our region,” she said.