More than a dozen community colleges will be able to offer bachelor’s degrees in the next few years under newly signed legislation that opens the door to a shift in the state’s higher education landscape.

Senate Bill 850, signed Sunday by Gov. Jerry Brown, creates a pilot program allowing up to 15 community colleges to offer upper division degrees in specialized, vocational occupational fields.

The bill represents a significant change for California community colleges, whose mission has been to provide lower-division coursework, vocational certificates and two-year associate degrees. Four-year degrees have been the purview of the University of California and California State University under the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, the 54-year-old document that maps the roles of the state’s postsecondary sectors.

The community college degree program could also translate to significant savings for students. Community college officials estimate base student fees could run about $11,000 for the bachelor’s degree programs, not including books or other costs. That’s compared to about $22,000 for base student fees over four years at CSU, and upward of $48,000 at UC, not including additional costs.

“It’s good for our students and secondarily good for our state,” said California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris, citing research suggesting the state will need to produce more than 1 million more college-educated workers by 2025 to meet workforce demands. “We’re going to be part of that solution.”

With the bill’s passage, California becomes the 22nd state to allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees.

The bill, by Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, does not stipulate subject areas, but says the diplomas may only be offered if they do not duplicate diplomas already offered by CSU or UC campuses.

The degrees are expected to be offered in vocational fields such as automotive technology, industrial and health technology, and other fields where an associate degree is no longer considered sufficient to guarantee employment.

Only one campus in a district – up to 15 campuses statewide – may offer a bachelor’s degree and the new degree programs must be in place no later than the 2017-18 academic year. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office will conduct an interim evaluation of the programs in 2018, with a final evaluation by July 2022. The pilot program would end in 2022-23, unless extended by the Legislature.

“I am absolutely so confident that we’re going to be so wildly successful that actually sooner than the sunset date the people of California will be demanding more of these degrees,” said Linda Thor, chancellor of the Los Altos Hills-based Foothill-DeAnza Community College District.

“I think it’s an idea whose time has come,” said California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris.

UC and CSU campuses don’t offer bachelor’s degrees in the fields that will be targeted under SB 850, Thor said. For example, Foothill College offers a popular lower-division respiratory therapy program, Thor said, but the closest campus that offers a bachelor’s degree is Loma Linda University in Southern California – presenting a geographical and potential financial barrier to some students.

The bill doesn’t stipulate the number of degrees that will be awarded, but Thor said most vocational occupational programs covered by the legislation enroll between 25 and 50 students. “We’re not talking about thousands of students statewide,” she said, “we’re talking hundreds of students statewide.”

The bill sets up a two-tier fee structure for students in the baccalaureate programs. Lower-division coursework will cost the standard systemwide fee of $46 per class unit, while the upper-division coursework will cost an additional $84 per unit; most courses are three or four units.

Base student fees for a baccalaureate program are estimated to run about $10,560, based on a 120 credit-hour program. The estimated fee is calculated by assuming students will complete 60 units of lower-division coursework at $46 per unit, followed by 60 units of upper division work at $130 per unit.

Legislators, including Block, had tried several times over past years to grant community colleges the authority to offer bachelor’s degrees. This attempt had broad support, Harris said, including from California State University and other groups that helped modify the legislation to address areas of concern and opposition.

“Then the other thing is, I think it’s an idea whose time has come,” Harris said.

Still, the legislation was opposed by the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, which said more research is needed on potential impacts of the new degree program.

The senate, which represents faculty at the state’s 112 community colleges, had too many unanswered questions about the bill. Among them are concerns over how the upper-division component of the degree programs would be handled, questions about teacher qualifications and contracts, as well as potential impacts on the colleges’ mission and on other programs, said Academic Senate Chair David Morse.

“There’s some real skepticism around the cost of the program,” Morse said. “Can we really offer these programs at a lower rate than, say, they are being offered at a CSU? One of our concerns all the way along has been can we do this without draining resources away from the programs we already have to serve students?”

Harris acknowledged lingering questions over the baccalaureate offerings, but said he expects many of those will be addressed at the campus level, as administrators pull together their applications to be considered for the degree programs.

The new offerings will be good for students, said Omar Paz Jr., a Santa Rosa Junior College student who chairs the systemwide Student Senate for California Community Colleges.

“It’s really focusing on meeting the workforce demand and need, due to the fact that the community colleges are a lot more flexible and can meet those needs at a much faster pace than CSU and UC,” he said.

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