Renewed push to let community colleges award bachelor's degrees

February 18, 2014

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Second-year student Lindsey Cetani works on a patient in Foothill College's Dental Hygiene clinic. The associates degree program could be expanded into a four-year baccalaureate degree program if Senate Bill 850 passes.

Second-year student Lindsey Cetani works on a patient in Foothill College’s Dental Hygiene clinic. Credit: Kathryn Baron, EdSource

When Michigan granted community colleges the authority to confer baccalaureate degrees a year ago, it became the 21st state to do so. An effort is under way to make California No. 22.

Senate Bill 850 by Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, would create an eight-year pilot program allowing each of the state’s 112 community colleges to offer one degree known as an applied baccalaureate.

“In both the short run and the long run, it’s a real win for the state,” said Block, citing research by the Public Policy Institute of California and the higher education policy group California Competes indicating that the state will need up to 1 million additional bachelor’s degrees by 2025 to meet the growing demand for skilled workers.

The state can’t reach that goal, Block said, without community colleges, which educate some 2 million students a year, more than twice that of California State University and the University of California.

“It’s something that the CSU and UC haven’t been able to keep up with in terms of demand,” Block said, “and frankly they don’t offer degrees in some of the fields where the demand might be.”

Although the bill doesn’t designate specific majors, they would likely be in skilled professions such as nursing, dental hygiene and automotive technology. These fields have undergone considerable advancements in recent decades, creating a demand for a more highly educated workforce.

The idea isn’t new – Block and other legislators have tried and failed four times since 2004 to give community colleges the authority to grant bachelor’s degrees – and, as in past years, the proposal faces likely opposition from CSU, UC and even some corners of the community college system. Although none of the systems has yet taken a formal position on the current bill, faculty and administrators have expressed concerns that community colleges are just beginning to recover from $1.5 billion in budget cuts that slashed classes and enrollment, and may want to focus on rebuilding before starting any new building.

But this year, the proposal is getting a boost from a study group established by California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris.

In a report released late last month, the group, which included representatives from UC and CSU, stopped short of making a formal recommendation, but leaned in favor of community college baccalaureates.

“After much discussion and feedback, the study group believes that the offering of baccalaureates by the California community colleges merits serious review and discussion by the chancellor and the Board of Governors,” the summary states.

Harris took a similarly judicious stand: “It’s premature for me to say exactly where I am on this. Having said that, I think that it’s increasingly clear in a number of applied areas that our students are finding increased difficulty getting employment with only the associate degree.”

Even if they can get entry-level jobs, the students who rely on programs offered at community colleges say that once they are hired, they can’t meet their career goals without advanced degrees, which, except for nursing, aren’t offered in their fields of study at the state universities.

The auto-glass ceiling

Randy Bryant, center, director of De Anza College’s automotive technology program, works with students Emily Lowdermilk and Sean Boylan. Bryant says he has a baccalaureate curriculum ready to go if lawmakers give the go-ahead. Credit: Kathryn Baron, EdSource

A couple dozen students wearing navy coveralls are working under cars and analyzing wheel alignment readings on computer monitors in an immaculate 15,000-square-foot garage at the center of De Anza College’s automotive technology program.

“You put this inside the spring and you wind it, then you tighten it up until you just a get a little tension on the spring,” instructor and department head Randy Bryant explains to 23-year-old Emily Lowdermilk and 29-year-old Sean Boylan, as they stand underneath a black sedan learning how to take things apart and put them back together.

Boylan is in the first year of the three-year program at the Cupertino campus. Just to apply, he needed to take nearly two years of general education classes and prerequisites. After all that, he’ll earn an associate degree when he graduates. He’s hoping that the baccalaureate pilot program will be in place before then. The higher-level degree will give him professional opportunities that the associate degree doesn’t afford.

“Instead of just being a service technician you can go into the management (end) of things and just climb the ladder from there,” Boylan said. “It’s about moving up.”

“Not everyone wants to work in a shop,” agreed Lowdermilk. She plans to transfer to Cal State for an engineering degree after graduating from De Anza this spring, to prepare for a career in race technology and high-performance cars. “There’s a lot more than just being a technician at a dealership or at an independent shop.”

The bachelor’s degree program would include a business sequence, said Bryant, who has already created a curriculum for the expanded major that’s ready to go if Block’s bill passes.

“Everyone’s heard of the glass ceiling for women in business; the same thing applies to technicians today,” Bryant said. “It used to be an (associate of science) degree was enough to get you into a management position.”

Nowadays, he said, manufacturers want their technicians to have the technical know-how necessary to work on cars with 30 or more computers on board all talking to each other, and they want people with management know-how: leadership, critical thinking and good communication skills.

State and private four-year colleges in California don’t offer an automotive management degree. The closest place his students could get this education today, said Bryant, is in Utah.

Meeting non-traditional needs

Salah Bellahsene, a respiratory therapy student at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, could remain in California to earn a baccalaureate, but the one school offering that degree, the private Loma Linda University, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, might as well be in Utah. Like many community college students who have families and have to work their way through school, Bellahsene can’t leave the San Francisco Bay Area and he can’t afford a private school.

The 37-year-old was a soccer coach until his cousin’s twins were born premature. After watching the respiratory therapists work on the infants, he decided to change careers.

Bellahsene enrolled in Foothill and began a lengthy process of taking prerequisites in order to apply for the program. What should have been a year and a half of courses took twice as long, he explained between breaks while performing simulated emergency drills on high-tech dummies in lab class.

“It took me a little while because I was working; sometimes I could only take one class at a time,” Bellahsene said.

That’s not unusual for community college students. A report from The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education notes that, nationwide, “44 percent of low-income students (those with family incomes of less than $25,000 per year) attend community colleges as their first college after high school,” compared to 15 percent of high-income students. They’re also less likely to graduate. An added benefit of offering baccalaureate programs at community colleges is that it could help close the degree gap.

“Definitely, yes,” said Bellahsene when asked if he would stay at Foothill for a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy if available. “It’s kind of limited as an associate’s degree. With a bachelor’s, it would bring up more opportunities.”

Students Salah Bellahsene, left, and Luis Ochoa practice resuscitation techniques on a medical dummy in their respiratory therapy lab at Foothill College, which could become a baccalaureate program under Sen. Marty Block’s bill. Credit: Kathryn Baron, EdSource

The American Association for Respiratory Care, the professional organization for respiratory therapists, agrees, for that and other reasons. In a 2009 position paper, the organization recommended to the licensing board that baccalaureates should become the minimum professional requirement as advances in research, technology and medication increase the knowledge and abilities needed to adequately care for patients.

The American Dental Hygienists’ Association issued a similar recommendation for future dental hygienists, and the Institute of Medicine created industry-wide buzz when it called for increasing the number of nurses with baccalaureates to 80 percent by 2020.

Mission creep

Despite overwhelming support from students and instructors in the De Anza and Foothill classes, there is an internecine conflict over the issue within community colleges.

There are misconceptions about tuition, state funding and capacity, said Beth Smith, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The current tuition of $46 a unit will have to increase for baccalaureate students, Smith said, although there’s no way of knowing how much more without a cost analysis.

SB 850 leaves it up to each community college district to establish rates, and Block said that start-up funding could come from the $50 million innovation grant program that Gov. Jerry Brown proposed in his 2014-15 budget to increase the number of students who earn bachelor’s degrees.

Smith acknowledges that there are some very good reasons to consider the proposal, but she wants to slow down the process before making a decision that shakes up the fundamental philosophical mission of community colleges to accept all students.

“It changes the whole dynamic of what we do,” she said, “from our admissions offices to our counseling offices to our classrooms.”

The academic senate at Cal State is reviewing a draft resolution, not yet publicly available, that, as of now, opposes Block’s legislation, said Senate Chair Diana Guerin.

CSU and community colleges already have existing pathways, especially with the new associate degree of transfer, which guarantees admission to a CSU campus as a junior for community college students who complete specific associate degree programs. These should be expanded before interfering with the colleges’ missions, said Christine Mallon, who represented CSU on the community college study group.

The senate also wants a veto power of sorts.

“CSU and the UC should be consulted on whether they can provide access” to students who might want to pursue a bachelor’s degree at community college, Guerin said. “Sort of a like a right of first refusal, is the way I look at it.”

Those arguments baffle Linda Thor, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and founding member of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, a national advocacy organization.

“First, I want to make clear that we’re talking about one degree per college,” she said. “I want to make clear that we’re not talking about community colleges becoming universities, so we’re not interested in offering degrees in English and political science and history. Rather, we are talking about a very few targeted degrees that meet the needs of the local employers and work force.”

Thor said she also finds it ironic that CSU faculty would want to call attention to the notion of “mission creep” since they successfully lobbied for bills to amend the Master Plan and allow them to offer doctoral degrees in educational leadership, nursing practice, audiology and physical therapy, over the objections of UC.

“However, they did get the authority,” Thor said, “and the world hasn’t come to an end.”

Contact senior reporter Kathryn Baron and follow her on Twitter @TchersPet. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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