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Community colleges have become the smart choice for today’s high school graduates, and no one knows that better than Dr. Jim Kerley, president of Gulf Coast State College.

That’s why he’s leading this community college through a period of growth and transition. Now, the institution is capitalizing on its flexible offerings to provide students with four-year degrees, along with certificates and associate’s degrees, centered on today’s most sought after industries.

Gulf Coast State College was founded in 1957 as a junior college and was partnered with the local school system. It was the first public two-year institution to open after the 1957 Florida legislature established a statewide network of community colleges. Today, it enrolls more than 7,000 students in credit courses each semester. An additional 5,000 students are registered at Gulf Coast State College for continuing education or lifelong learning programs.

The college is undergoing a period of transition. Although it is still a community college, Kerley explained that the institution is looking to offer students practical four-year degrees geared toward the community’s needs. In fact, the community remains at the heart of all the college has recently done.

“It’s a fun and dynamic time to be president of this college,” Kerley said. “We’ve gone through tremendous change, but the focus remains on the region we serve, along with economic development and job creation. We were hit hard by the recession, and revenues from tourism and construction projects slowed dramatically. The college is taking center stage, and it’s our responsibility to find ways to revive the community.”

Planning for success

Kerley stepped into his role in 2007 and immediately began developing a strategic plan for the college. He said it was important for the college to identify the needs of the region and then build programs around those needs. Gulf Coast conducted many town hall meetings and brought in faculty, staff, students, and community members to share their thoughts on the college and its direction.

After collecting information, Kerley said certain trends stuck out. For example, many felt the college needed to be more engaged in the community. As a result, the theme of the college’s strategic plan became helping with job creation through the development of programs and facilities.

The results of the strategic planning meetings also gave the college the push it needed to develop its advanced technology center. Prior to its strategic planning period, the college had funds to build a new facility but didn’t know what type of building it should invest in. Thanks to advice from community members, the college brought in consultants who suggested the college build an advanced technology center.

“We wanted to keep the development of the center focused on the region we serve,” said Kerley. “And that’s what we’ve done. The needs in this region center on defense, green technology, alternative energy, and many others. The programs we’re developing stem from our strategic planning meetings and align with the IT center.”

The center will be LEED certified, and Kerley said the college is hoping for a gold ranking. It was important for the institution to have an environmentally friendly building because of the new green programs it’s offering students.

“We walk the talk,” Kerley said. “We’re doing amazing things in regard to green technology, such as converting gasoline-powered cars to electric-powered cars. It was important for us to have a LEED certified building to show we exercise green initiatives in the way we operate.”

Its emergency operations center was another investment for the college and was finished in 2009.  Kerley said it’s an invaluable way for students to gain first-hand experience. “It’s added a lot to the college,” he said. “If we have catastrophic storms, emergency workers take over the center and use it as a meeting place. But most of the time, we have ongoing education and training there. It’s a great example of collaboration.”

Growing offerings

Thanks to the strategic plan, the college has evolved to offer students certificate programs and degrees tailored toward some of today’s top-earning industries. It’s developing a myriad of programs focusing on green energy, healthcare, and more. “We’re meeting the needs of today’s workforce and economy,” he said. “As a result, we’ve learned to be flexible in the way we operate and responsive to changes in our region.”

The college is diversifying its healthcare curriculum and is looking to add a four-year nursing degree in the near future. It will be working on two or three more four-year degree programs in the years to come and is considering programs like public safety and a combination of healthcare and IT.

Kerley said he would ultimately like to add about two bachelor’s programs per year within the next five years, resulting in an additional 10 bachelor’s programs offered at the college. Even though Gulf Coast is in the beginning stages of this transition, Kerley estimated it will see at least 500 additional students in its bachelor’s programs within the next five years.

“We’re hoping to have continuous, gradual growth,” he said. “But it will also depend on the programs offered. For example, the bachelor’s in nursing will be popular, and there will be a lot of students wanting to get into that program. It will be more selective but will add a significant number of students to the college. The health IT program will also be popular because there are a lot of jobs in the industry, and we’re considering a business management degree as well.”

Name game

The college underwent a name change, which helped showcase its new programs. Formerly Gulf Coast Community College, the college was deemed Gulf Coast State College after Kerley and his team called on students, professors, and staff to help with the institution’s new title.

“Changing our name was significant because we had that name for a long time,” said Kerley. “We had substantial input and eventually formed a list of 100 name possibilities. We felt the best name for the college was still ‘Gulf Coast’ because it’s a beautiful area. We decided to keep that part of the name and add ‘State College.’”

Although the college won’t formally be referred to as a community college, it’s still sticking to its mission of offering affordable, flexible education, ranging from certificates to bachelor’s degrees.

“We’re just expanding the mission,” he said. “We’re a blend of a state college and a community college. We still offer developmental and noncredit courses, along with associates degrees and certificates, but we’re including four-year programs. It was important for us not to lose sight of the fact     we were founded as a junior college.”

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