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Community Colleges Lobby to Offer Four-year Degrees


Michigan community colleges are challenging four-year universities for the right to offer bachelor’s degrees, and if they succeed, would join more than a dozen states across the country that already allow such degrees.

The move is being opposed by Michigan’s 15 public universities, which says it’s a clear case of the colleges overstepping their missions. The bill expected to get a hearing this fall would let community colleges offer some four-year degrees.

“They see it as an invasion of their turf,” said Michael Hansen, president of the 28-member Michigan Community College Association. “We’re not about taking fish out of their net. We’re about growing the net.”

President Barack Obama put community colleges front-and-center in his July 14 higher education policy speech at Macomb Community College in Warren, not far from America’s struggling auto capital. Macomb County is Michigan’s most populous county without a state university.

Obama announced a $12 billion proposal to increase community college graduates by 5 million by 2020. Community colleges now graduate about 1 million students a year. The president said the nation’s economic future depends on building a skilled work force.

“We will not fill those jobs, or keep those jobs on our shores, without the training offered by community colleges,” Obama said.

So far, community colleges have won the right to offer four-year degrees in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia, the Community College Baccalaureate Association says. Legislative efforts to extend the practice could come soon in Arizona and California, said Beth Hagan, executive director of the Fort Myers, Fla.-based group.

Tucson’s Pima Community College would like to offer bachelor’s degrees in business, construction and education, said Chancellor Roy Flores.

“This issue should be looked at dispassionately and objectively, with the needs of the community in mind,” Flores said. “It shouldn’t be based on institutional interests.”

Michigan State Rep. John Walsh, a former community college administrator, says community colleges do a better job training tomorrow’s workers if they’re allowed to offer bachelor’s degrees in some technical and vocational fields.

He has introduced a bill permitting the two-year schools to offer bachelor’s degrees in nursing, culinary arts and cement technology.

Walsh limited his proposal to three technical fields in which he said there is a strong demand, learning from last year’s failure of a Senate bill granting community colleges broad authorities to offer four-year degrees, So far, the bill has eight Democratic and eight Republican sponsors.

“Community colleges offer an affordable and accessible option” at a time when the harsh economy has put a university education out of reach for many, said Walsh, a freshman Republican from Livonia and an ex-Schoolcraft College administrator.

Livonia-based Schoolcraft says it would like to add a bachelor’s degree in its established culinary arts program, and Alpena Community College wants to add a four-year option to its concrete technology program. Eight to 10 schools want to offer four-year nursing degrees, Walsh said.

Michigan’s community colleges have about 452,000 mostly part-time students. Its public universities have about 298,000 full-time students.

Four-year campuses want the community colleges to stick to their core mission. Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, said community colleges should stick with what they do best: offering post-high school remedial education, preparing students to enter four-year colleges and granting technical certificates and two-year degrees.

“We have our distinct missions,” said Boulus. “The two-year and the four-year institutions are very different.”

Michigan community colleges and universities already collaborate through “university centers” at which students can pursue two- or four-year degrees or seamlessly move from one to the other, Boulus said.

Community college advocates say university administrators fear lower-price competition. Full-time tuition is $937 a semester at Oakland Community College, compared with the $4,028 an in-state freshman paid during the winter term at nearby Oakland University.

Community colleges curb costs by giving faculty heavier course loads than at research universities. They also employ large numbers of lower-paid part-time faculty and a larger proportion of teachers without doctoral degrees.

Further dividing a shrinking state higher education budget also worries university leaders. Financially stressed Michigan has cut aid to its public universities in recent years.

“The main concern is that we already are not supporting the existing four-year institutions to the degree they need,” said Marc Sheehan, spokesman for Ferris State University in Big Rapids.

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