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Community colleges continuing trend to offer four-year degrees

December 20, 2017
By: Ellen Marrison

This past summer Ohio joined a growing number of states that allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees when it enacted legislation allowing community colleges, state community colleges, and technical colleges to apply to offer applied bachelor’s degrees. If approved, the programs will join a growing number of applied baccalaureate degree programs being offered by community colleges across the country. The trend has met with resistance from some higher education institutions, while students and employers voice their support.

Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association writes in a forthcoming paper that there are approximately 90 community colleges with more than 700 active degree programs in 19 states, and offerings have widened and deepened with more recent degrees focusing on workforce. Those degree designations represent local needs in what might be considered niches of specific demand for that district or state.

Community college administrators began to recognize the growing need for applied baccalaureate degrees in their communities in the 1990s, with demand in particular geographic areas and high-demand fields of health care, education and technology, Hagan found. She cites three primary reasons for the development of these degrees at community colleges:

  • Some saw it as an opportunity to satisfy the responsibility of community colleges to provide access to baccalaureate education in areas where it was not previously available, especially in regions that were geographically remote;
  • They provide a cost-effective way to increase baccalaureate access versus a more expensive university option; and,
  • They provide an opportunity to provide targeted programming that produced graduates in labor-shortage areas, or to meet the demand of local employers.

Still in its infancy in Ohio, 16 programs applied for the opportunity to offer a bachelor’s degree, with nine being chosen for the next phase of review — public comment on the proposals, which closes this Friday. Both supporters and detractors have weighed in online, mirroring the larger discussion surrounding the expanded ability of community colleges to offer the bachelor’s degrees.

One of the proposed degrees is for a bachelor of science in land surveying through Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. In considering the degree, Jeff Robinson, director of communication for the Ohio Department of Higher Education, noted that the closest four-year program offering in surveying would take students out of state to Kentucky, and Ohio would prefer to keep the students in state, he said. Cincinnati State offers a two-year degree, but the public comments regarding the proposed four-year degree note that many surveyors are getting ready to retire, the field is becoming more complicated and demanding and the bachelor’s degree would help fill the local need for qualified workers.

Texas has a longer history of awarding applied baccalaureate degrees, dating back to 2003 when the first pilot program was approved allowing three colleges to confer up to five degrees. As the program proved successful, the state removed the pilot status in 2007, but maintained the limit of five applied baccalaureate degrees. This year, the program was expanded and now permits community colleges to offer certain baccalaureate programs in the fields of applied technology, applied science, early childhood education, and nursing.

South Texas College was one of the three community colleges in the pilot program and has proven successful in its offerings, noted Anahid Petrosian, the interim vice president for academic affairs at South Texas College. The process for approval of a baccalaureate degree isn’t an easy one, Petrosian said, and it is frequently met with resistance from universities who view it as competition; but they shouldn’t, she maintains. Instead, the applied baccalaureates offer students an opportunity to build on an associate’s degree more seamlessly, serve the non-traditional students’ needs as they want to continue their education, and help fill workforce needs, Petrosian said.

Petrosian said the Texas state legislature has been very demanding in its review of the programs, but she agrees that not every community college will be able to offer baccalaureate degrees and that it is good to ensure there is no duplication of services. Offering a baccalaureate can be expensive and the community college must have the capacity and faculty to be able to make the program successful, she said.

There are a variety of arguments on both sides, said Thomas Harnisch, the director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Some argue for the lower price that community colleges offer and their ability to serve regions that do not have a four-year college, or offer niche programs serving local employment needs. However, Harnisch said there is concern that it could become more expensive to obtain a degree at a community college and that it could lead to duplicating services and less collaboration among higher education institutions if they are in greater competition with one another.

Harnisch also pointed to the argument that some community colleges may not have the resources to provide a quality bachelor’s degree program, which in turn could lead to more students failing to complete a program.

“The issue of duplication and efficiency are at the heart of the argument in expanding bachelor’s degrees at community colleges,” Harnisch said, noting that there has been “significant push back” in some states from the four-year colleges. Although there are numerous examples of collaboration between community colleges and four-year campuses, he said there is concern that such collaboration will decrease if community colleges go to four-year degree programs.

“These collaborations leverage the strengths of both actors to provide a high quality college degree at an affordable price,” Harnisch said. He recommends that both sectors work together to determine the appropriateness for some of the programs. They need to determine whether there is a market for the degrees and whether the four-year institutions want to offer the degree. If a degree is poorly designed, it could lead to more duplication of services, and higher costs to students and taxpayers, he said.

“Policy makers need to consider all the implications of doing these four year degrees at community colleges,” Harnisch said.

The Ohio public comments for the first round of applicants reflects both sides of the argument — employers have cited the need for more qualified workers and current and former students have supported the programs, while universities have weighed in citing a duplication of service in some instances, and threatening a decrease in future collaboration between community colleges and four-year programs. Once the comment period closes, the programs will be reviewed again and those that are approved to move on will make a full proposal to the Higher Learning Commission for further consideration, Robinson said.

Working with the legislature can be daunting according to Petrosian.  “There are 200 mountains to climb,” she said, but in the end she notes that the programs have helped serve students that otherwise may not have pursued a bachelor’s degree due to distance or cost, and in turn have helped fill employers demand for higher skilled workers. She said she believes the trend for more community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees will continue.

community college, higher ed