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Updated: 01/08/2014 08:00:03AM

Polk State College: A journey of 50 years

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Fifty years ago, Polk Junior College opened its doors in what was once the post-World War II headquarters building of Bartow Air Base, the predecessor to Bartow Municipal Airport.

After a spirited inter-city rivalry, a permanent site for the college was selected in Winter Haven.

At 4 o’clock this afternoon, Polk State College cuts the ribbon on its $13.5 million Polk State Clear Springs Advanced Technology Center on State Road 60 east of Bartow. It will offer training for an array of high tech careers, many in fields that were not even dreamed of when PJC opened its doors.

First, a brief overview of Polk State College and its peers in Florida.

Florida’s public junior college system was established in 1933, but until 1947, there was only one such school in the state. In 1948, thanks to action by the 1947 Legislature, three more such institutions opened in Florida. Today there are 28.

Initially, a major objective of the junior college system was to make the first two years of college significantly less expensive than two years at a state university. Catering to students living within commuting distance was one of several significant factors in keeping costs low. That remains true today.

Junior colleges also provided an academic bridge between the more disciplined atmosphere of high school and the less structured environment of a large university for students needing that transition. That also remains a reality of the role of these institutions.

The cost to teach a class in a junior college is about one-half the cost of a university class, and graduates of what today is Polk State College often do better academically, on the average, in the last two years of a four-year university than their classmates who started at the same four-year institution.

As junior colleges increased their emphasis on meeting the unique needs and interests of the communities in which they were located, the names morphed into community colleges, and PJC became Polk Community College.

Today, with these institutions offering a limited number of four-year degrees, the term has become state colleges. Given state college focus on career-oriented majors, graduates from baccalaureate programs at state colleges average significantly higher starting salaries than grads of four-year state universities.

None of these comparisons is intended to demean the contributions of four-year institutions, which carry out major research efforts and offer a vastly larger selection of majors.

They have their role in the educational continuum, just as do junior/community/state colleges.

In its first half-century, Polk State College has become an institution that its founders scarcely could have imagined 50 years ago.

With the addition of the Bartow campus, Polk State will offer college classes at six locations: the main campus in Winter Haven, two campuses in Lakeland, two centers in Lake Wales, and the new facility at Bartow.

PSC also operates three two-year charter high schools in Lakeland and Winter Haven. At least one-third of the graduates of these schools receive an AA (two-year) college degree upon graduation from high school.

Polk State also offers training for certification in fields like health sciences and law enforcement, as well as course work to meet the needs of local industry.

Students working in high tech labs at the new Bartow-based corporate college will study the latest developments in fields like manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping.

Degrees offered will include engineering technology, supply chain management, and computer network technology.

The Bartow campus was made possible in large part by a $12 million grant from Stan Phelps, the entrepreneur who purchased the Clear Springs Mine property and envisioned, among other things, development of high tech education and industry in Polk County.

PSC takes this next step under the leadership of its current president, Dr. Eileen Holden, who shares Phelps’ vision for this region.

From its infancy in a former air base headquarters building 50 years ago, Polk State College has become a major force in education in the county that proudly calls itself Imperial Polk.

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