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Community Colleges Opening Doors Wider With 4-Year Degrees

Community colleges have stepped up to meet workforce opportunities in areas such as nursing and technology by offering four-year degrees.

“Implementing baccalaureate degrees at community colleges is, at its heart, about preserving access to higher education for all students,” says Dr. Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

“Community colleges are a gateway to the middle class for many students,” he continues. “Providing  baccalaureate degrees in areas where access to them is limited or nonexistent sends a critical message about the importance of providing higher educational opportunities to all Americans.”

Community colleges are institutions that offer two-year associate degrees. For some individuals, that is their only experience with higher education. Other students go on to four-year colleges or universities to pursue a bachelor’s degree. The vast majority of community college students attend institutions located near where they reside.

Workforce specific

In some areas, students may have a desire to pursue a four-year degree, but either there isn’t a baccalaureate-granting institution within a reasonable distance or there isn’t one that offers the specific program they wish to pursue.

An example given for the latter is automotive technology. In recent years, an increasing number of community colleges have stepped in to fill that void by developing four-year baccalaureate programs.

“They’re all very specific to a workforce need, like dental hygiene or nursing,” says Dr. Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association (CCBA).  “Almost all the degrees are directly related to a local community need.”

Hagan says that there are no liberal arts bachelor’s degree programs at community colleges. Also, students aren’t admitted directly into four-year programs. Rather, they apply for the baccalaureate program after completion of the two-year degree. Most students who apply have already entered the workforce and are now desirous of more education to further their careers, relates Hagan.

“This gives a chance to somebody who might not be able to advance because they can’t go to [a] university—they have a family, they have a job—to be able to make more money and to advance in their careers while their employers are improving their human resource pool by having educated workers,” Hagan says.

Not all states allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees, and some states that allow it don’t have any institutions that offer it. According to Hagan, there are currently 19 states that have programs with 87 colleges involved with 650 programs. Four more states are trying to earn approval to develop such programs.

Cost of college

“The Rio Grande Valley is regularly among the two most impoverished cosmopolitan areas in the United States,” says Dr. Ali Esmaeili, dean of math, sciences and bachelor’s degree programs at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas, and a CCBA board member.

South Texas College was established in 1993 to provide an affordable, quality education to some of Texas’ poorest counties. In keeping with its institutional mission, over the past 11 years the college has developed four bachelor’s programs: technology management, computer and information technologies, medical and health services management, and a bachelor of applied science in organizational leadership (BASOL), says Esmaeili.

According to Esmaeili, the cost of attending South Texas College versus a traditional four-year institution has changed the lives of hundreds of students who previously would have had no access to a bachelor’s degree. He notes that the average cost of a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution in the region of South Texas would be approximately $50,000 in tuition and books. South Texas College would cost a fraction of that, with the BASOL estimated at less than $10,000, thanks in part to the College For All Texans TEXAS grant awarded in 2013.

“The direct and indirect benefits of these degrees for our students and the community are manifold and have truly contributed to transforming the region,” says Esmaeili. “First, students and their families are able to aspire to better employment opportunities and a higher standard of living. Second, the availability of a more-educated workforce encourages companies to relocate to South Texas.”

Criticisms and setbacks

While the movement for baccalaureate programs at community colleges began two decades ago, there has been a surge in interest over the past few years as the cost of higher education has risen along with the demand for a higher level of education and skill required for emerging professions.

“Just as the community colleges became a disruptive innovation in the early ’60s, community college baccalaureates are beginning to surge because there is a growing need for options,” says Dr. Rufus Glasper, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Glasper cites Arizona as an example of the need. There are only three public universities and no state systems. Community college baccalaureate (CCB) programs could provide lower-cost options that allow increased educational and economic opportunities.

Glasper says these programs would help meet President Obama’s college completion goals for the nation, but there is hesitance and resistance by higher education leadership.

“Some see the community college baccalaureate as mission erosion,” says Glasper. “Some fear the baccalaureate programs would further divide an already strained financial pie. Some fear that there would be a two-class system: the community college faculty and the baccalaureate faculty.

“Community colleges interested in offering community college baccalaureate programs should work closely with the employer community to identify the areas of high demand,” he adds. “They should work with their accrediting bodies, both regional and specialized accreditation. Clear and open communication with local universities is important to avoid conflict.”

A significant number of CCB programs are in the nursing field. In 2005, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) issued a position statement giving its support.

“Efforts to expand the availability of baccalaureate nursing programs and increase the number of baccalaureate-prepared nurses nationwide are consistent with the association’s work to create a more highly educated nursing workforce,” it reads.

AACN also advises that it must be vigilant in making sure that such programs are “developed with the same scientific and liberal education foundation used in nursing programs offered at four-year colleges.” All officials overseeing nursing programs are referred to AACN’s publication The Essentials of Baccalaureate Education for Professional Nursing Practice. A 2015 AACN policy brief indicates there are currently seven states with 26 community colleges operating RN-BSN (resident nurse-bachelor’s of science in nursing) programs, Florida being the most prevalent with 19.

Ellen Trabka, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Northern New Mexico College (an AACN-member school), says adding a bachelor’s program doesn’t increase access because many community colleges offer associate degrees in nursing so they already provide access. The BSN should bring about a higher standard in the profession.

“Offering BSN programs at community colleges provides a pathway to a baccalaureate degree in nursing, which is a nationwide goal—to increase the percentage of nurses prepared at the baccalaureate degree level,” Trabka says. “Baccalaureate degree-prepared nurses have an expanded scope of knowledge about community and global health, policy and politics, evidence-based practice and are more prepared to function in leadership roles in nursing.

“My one concern about community colleges offering BSN programs is, will the students have the benefit of taking classes with doctorally prepared faculty.”

Glasper says that, as the number of CCB programs increase across the country, standards will be maintained and even increased as previously unmet workforce demands are addressed.

“The community college baccalaureate program allows for incorporation of multiple innovative approaches, such as online and hybrid courses, stackable credentials, internships and service learning, credit for prior learning and competency-based education,” Glasper says. “Taking the CCB to scale can be the next innovation impacting access, retention, completion, time to degree and cost.”

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