Community College’s New Foray
As more two-year colleges begin to offer bachelor’s degrees, higher education officials ponder benefits, possible pitfalls
By Kristina Lane
What does two plus two equal? Usually posed in the very early stages of a child’s education, the question is being looked at afresh by higher education leaders postulating a new sum: two plus two equals a community college offering a bachelor’s degree.
But as this new formula gained popularity over the last decade, it also has created divisions within the ranks of higher education.
Some say community colleges are within their rights to seek approval to offer bachelor’s degrees. Others believe that baccalaureate-granting community colleges will eventually leave behind the very students community colleges were created to serve.
Is the community college baccalaureate a step in the right direction or getting off on the wrong foot?
Because the number of American two-year colleges offering bachelor’s degrees is still relatively small, few meaningful statistics about the trend exist. No government agency or private interest group has a reliable list of how many erstwhile two-year colleges offer four-year degrees in one form or another.
But the sheer number of community colleges that have sought and won baccalaureate certification in recent years suggests that the phenomenon is gaining momentum.
Just in the last three years, Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Fla., Miami-Dade Community College in Florida and Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., have all launched standalone baccalaureate programs.
As a measure of how interest in the concept of the community college baccalaureate has spread, and how many colleges might one day offer four-year degrees, the number of member colleges in the Community College Baccalaureate Association has jumped from fewer than five in its founding year, 1999, to about 75 today.
The Education Alliance, a Framingham, Mass.-based higher-education consulting group, says its research indicates that two-thirds of the nation’s community colleges have considered offering bachelor’s degrees in some capacity.
A handful of colleges, such as Miami-Dade Community College, Dixie State College and Great Basin College in Elko, Nev., have acquired approval from their boards of education and regional accreditation bodies to offer four-year degrees independently.
The Florida Board of Education approved Miami-Dade’s proposal to offer bachelor’s degrees in teacher education last year, and the first students will begin classes in August. The college expects an enrollment of about 500, according to Dr. Jose Vicente, president of Miami-Dade’s InterAmerican Campus.
Great Basin has been offering bachelor’s degrees in applied science, integrative and professional science, elementary education and nursing since 1999. The first class graduated in the spring of 2001.
About 2 ½ years ago, Dixie State started offering bachelor’s degrees in business administration, computer science and elementary education, and the school’s president, Dr. Robert Huddleston, said the school also hopes to obtain permission to grant bachelor’s degrees in nursing.
Unmet Needs, Slippery Slopes
While only a smattering of schools have established independent bachelor’s degree programs, many colleges offer so-called two-plus-two agreements with area universities. Such programs allow students to take university-level classes with university professors at community college campuses, though the four-year degrees are ultimately conferred by the four-year school.
What’s driving this interest? Supply and demand, says Dr. Ronald K. Remington, president of the Community College of Southern Nevada, which is hoping to launch a bachelor’s degree program. With universities few and far between in rural communities such as his, Remington said, community colleges must adapt their offerings to fill the void.
Remington was president of Great Basin College when it started offering four-year degrees in the fall of 1999. He said Great Basin launched its program after discovering the unmet need in the Elko community, which is rural and isolated — the nearest four-year institution is 240 miles away, in Utah. For place-bound students in Elko, such as those who have families and jobs, going that distance would be unrealistic, added Remington.
Dr. Rosa Perez, president of Cañada College in Redwood City, Calif., said her San Francisco Bay-area school is fairly close to many universities, but serves a high percentage of low-income Hispanic students and confronts geographic limitations of a different sort.
“We have Latino teens who contribute to the family income, and they can’t leave home because the families can’t afford to lose that source of income,” Perez says.
Cañada offers four-year degrees in conjunction with the Hayward, San Francisco and Monterey Bay campuses of California State University, because if the college’s students had to drive to these schools, they’d have to reduce their hours at work, Perez said. And that would create a financial burden their families just couldn’t bear.
Even in areas where there are many universities within easy reach, some two-year college officials say, they may not offer the bachelor’s degrees that students need.
Dr. Kevin Drumm, vice president of enrollment management/student and public affairs at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) in Springfield, Mass., said another reason community colleges seek to offer bachelor’s degrees is because four-year institutions don’t offer bachelor’s degrees in certain fields, such as applied science.
“At STCC, there was a particular regional need for a highly applied bachelor’s degree. The only other place that could do it was the University of Massachusetts, and it wasn’t in their mission to offer an applied degree,” Drumm says.
STCC is currently awaiting a decision by the board of higher education on its proposal to offer a bachelor’s degree in applied engineering technology. If approved, Drumm said, the program would be a collaborative effort with the University of Massachusetts.
Dr. Joani Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said the national nursing and teaching shortages also are spurring community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees that could help alleviate the shortages. But Finney cautioned against all community colleges jumping on the bachelor’s-degree bandwagon.
“I think mission creep is a big concern. Everybody wants to be within the Carnegie Classification, clawing your way up the ladder so you can justify charging students more,” she says. “In higher education we tend to put a lot of emphasis on the prestige of a research institution, which is the top of the heap, instead of rewarding other institutions for doing other things.”
Finney said public interest and need must exist before a community college offers four-year degrees.
The Upside …
Many educators agree with Finney that community colleges should proceed with caution along the path to a baccalaureate. But if the programs are done right, they say, there is a world of good to be done.
Miami-Dade’s Vicente said his school’s program would help end Florida’s severe teacher shortage.
“If there’s a strength we (community colleges) have, it’s the fact that we can mobilize our resources in order to meet community needs, and this (the bachelor’s degree program) is a perfect example,” he says. “We are meeting local work-force needs, meeting student needs and we are being part of a solution.”
Vicente emphasized that Miami-Dade has no intention of straying from its mission as a community college, and that it will seek to offer bachelor’s degrees only in fields where four-year schools can’t meet the demand.
Dr. Kenneth Walker, president of Edison Community College in Fort Myers, Fla., which offers bachelor’s degrees in conjunction with seven different four-year institutions, said bachelor’s degree programs are a natural part of the evolution of the community college.
“Needs change as colleges change, and colleges are just like corporations. If corporations don’t change, they begin to fail and they go out of business, and colleges have to be the same way,” he says. “Community colleges are not what we were 100 years ago. We’ve evolved … we changed as the needs of society changed. Now there’s a need for more bachelor’s degrees, especially in nursing and teacher preparation. We have the facilities, the faculty and the student demand. Why shouldn’t we respond to the changed needs in our society?”
Cañada’s Perez said colleges that offer access to four-year degrees on campus are helping universities glutted with applicants — especially those in California.
“There are massive numbers of K-12 kids graduating now, and California higher education is just overwhelmed as to how to serve them without additional funding to build more universities,” Perez says.
She also said it would make better sense — especially amid so much fiscal strife — if more four-year schools partnered with two-year schools and ushered their first- and second-year students toward the community colleges. California funding per full-time student at a community college is $4,000 a year, while University of California institutions get $26,000 a year for those same first- and second-year students, Perez said.
… and the Down
While the community college bachelor’s degree does have its advantages, there also are significant downsides — the biggest of which is cost, many officials say.
The original $1 million the California State Legislature granted to Cañada’s program in 2001 is nearly depleted, Perez said, and she’s having to look for other means of financial support.
The pricetag on Miami-Dade’s program was initially $1.9 million, according to Vicente, and maintaining is projected to be much more expensive than upkeep costs for programs at the associate’s level.
Such costs are above and beyond the means of many colleges, especially during the kind of large-magnitude fiscal crises now facing colleges. Even if a college is able to muster financial backing for a baccalaureate program, some officials say, the money would likely be swiped from other, more critical college missions.
“To the degree you do this (offer a bachelor’s degree program), you are giving up other things, like money for remedial education,” says Dr. James Jacobs, director of the center for work-force development and policy at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. “It seems like community colleges are trying to improve their image at a time when money, time and effort are needed for more important initiatives.”
Dr. Robert Pedersen, a historian of higher education and a former dean at El Camino College in Torrence, Calif., agrees with Jacobs.
“Another issue nobody every raises is that third- and fourth-year programs are significantly more expensive per student than first- and second-year programs, across the board. Programs that community colleges have shown an interest in — education and nursing — are relatively expensive to begin with,” Pedersen says. “If we’re as strapped for money as everybody says, where are the resources going to come from to support these programs? The money will come from low-status programs and will eliminate any program that is perceived to lack status.”
Colleges would probably also raise tuition to help fund the programs, Pedersen said, thereby restricting access to higher education for some students.
Faculty issues also can become very complicated. Colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees independently generally hire new faculty — often with doctorates — who command higher pay than those already teaching at the institution.
Dixie State’s Huddleston said reconciling faculty strife has been his toughest task to date. He said the college now has two tiers of faculty, each with its own pay scale: those who teach upper-division courses command about $60,000 a year, while those assigned to the lower division average about $45,000 annually.
Though no faculty left Dixie State because of the squabbling, there are still bad feelings swirling around campus, according to Huddleston.
Dr. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said faculty issues are one of his biggest concerns.
“The faculty are going to be seen as first-class and second-class. I don’t see how you can create a cohesive faculty if you are going to have those kinds of differences,” Boggs says.
Toward A More Perfect
However the calculus of pros and cons works out for a given school, some higher-education officials warn, community colleges should be wary of expanding too quickly into four-year degrees, lest they lose their identity, and ultimately that of the whole two-year college movement.
Boggs worries about a trend he has noticed: community colleges morphing into four-year institutions. Recently, while phoning AACC member institutions who hadn’t paid their membership dues, Boggs found some that weren’t paying because they had become four-year institutions. Utah State Valley College, for example, was a community college until 1993, when it became a four-year institution. While Boggs said the trend is catching on more quickly in certain parts of the country, such as Florida and Utah, he’s keeping close track of the movement everywhere.
Perez agreed that colleges independently offering bachelor’s degrees could easily be lured onto the exclusively four-year path. But she said there is a simple way to make sure two-year colleges hold onto their identities: make them partner up with four-year schools if they want to offer baccalaureates. Such initiatives, she said, tackle two problems at once: preserving the two-year mission of the community college while answering the call for more access to bachelor’s degrees.
“Why would I want to run a bachelor’s degree program? That’s not my business. I feel my duty is working with K-12, work-force training, certificate programs — not just universities. I want to stay in a community college while also helping bring access to a four-year degree. That’s our business. That’s what we do best,” Perez says.
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