Lawmakers and advocates pushing for more California community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees — a break from their core mission — may want to exercise caution.
A new report from the state Legislature’s independent policy advisor warns that the year-old pilot program allowing community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees is not yet ready to expand.
“Given numerous concerns about program selection and consultation, a lack of any graduation or workforce outcomes to date, and problems in financial reporting, the Legislature may wish to exercise caution in expanding the bachelor’s degree pilot program in advance of the final evaluation,” the report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded. Under the law authorizing the expansion, the LAO is required to issue a final evaluation in 2022.
Still, the report noted several positive attributes of the program so far, like attracting more students to bachelor programs who’d otherwise not considered it and winning approval from some regional employers.
A four-year community college bachelor’s degree costs about $10,000 — that’s roughly half the listed tuition at a California State University campus for a student receiving no financial aid and a fifth of what the same student would pay to attend a University of California campus.
The report, released Tuesday by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, comes three years after the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown approved a bill authorizing the California Community Colleges to pilot a program allowing a small number of community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees. The law was a major departure from the community college system’s chief mission to award two-year degrees, prepare students to transfer to four-year universities, and provide jobs training.
Ten bachelor’s degree programs began in the fall of 2016 and five in 2017, offering advanced degrees in fields that range from airframe manufacturing and automotive technology to respiratory care and mortuary science.
Nationwide, 86 community colleges in 16 states are offering bachelor’s degrees, said the report.
Community colleges “might be able to offer a $10,000 price” for the bachelor’s degrees, said Judy Heiman, a fiscal and policy analyst at the analyst’s office and the writer of the report, “but we need to understand how that relates to the cost of offering the program.”
“If they’re offering it at a $10,000 price but in fact it costs them $15,000 to do it, that means some other programs at the community colleges might be suffering,” she said. “The Legislature was very concerned about preserving the existing mission of the community colleges, and adding this as an additional layer, not hurting the original mission.”
The report found that in some cases the community colleges offering the bachelor’s degrees deviated from the intent of the 2014 law.
For example, the process for approving the degree programs was rushed, said the report, resulting in “substantially less information than routinely provided for new community college programs.” The community colleges were also supposed to consult with nearby UC and CSU campuses to avoid creating bachelor’s programs that were similar to ones already being offered, but the report says collaboration “was very limited” and that the community college system “approved some degree programs over CSU’s objections.” Heiman said the community colleges and CSU campuses have since resolved those issues.
In several cases, community colleges offering bachelor’s programs cut the associate degree programs that taught the same material. “With one exception,” the report said, “we see no justification for discontinuing these programs.” The report listed the following schools that unnecessarily discontinued its associate degree programs: Foothill and West Los Angeles colleges for dental hygiene and Modesto College for respiratory therapy. The associate programs “can help students gain initial employment, and often state licensing or certification, and can serve as feeders to bachelor’s degree programs,” the report said.
Though the 2014 law required the bachelor’s degree programs to address economic and labor market trends, most of the approved programs are “in fields where the typical entry‑level requirement is below a bachelor’s degree.” In some cases, students were earning bachelor’s degrees in areas where state licensing and industry certification standards say bachelor’s aren’t needed, according to the report.
And given how new the pilot program is, the state lacks any completion data to determine its success.
In response to the report’s findings, Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications and marketing for the state’s community college system, said that the pilot program is meant to help the state “close its projected shortfall of workers with four-year degrees.” He added that the colleges made rapid progress in creating the bachelor’s programs under a tight deadline.
“We agree with the report’s conclusion that more time and data will be required to fully evaluate this pilot program,” Feist added.
Among the positive findings, Heiman said employers and students have already benefited from the program. Heiman spoke to employers far from urban areas who said they struggled to recruit workers with bachelor’s degrees who did not already live in the area. By hiring workers educated locally through the new bachelor’s programs, employers hope to recruit workers who “wanted to be there, (because) that’s where they lived.”
Though the first set of graduates from these bachelor’s programs is at least a year away, already several employers have brought on students as interns and part-time workers, Heiman said.
Many of the students Heiman spoke to told her that they hadn’t previously planned on earning a bachelor’s degree, in some cases because the nearest CSU or UC campus was too far away. “But when their local community college offered a bachelor’s degree, they realized it was something they could do.”
Heiman hopes the LAO report will inform lawmakers who may be looking to reform or expand the program in 2018. At least one state lawmaker in 2017 proposed permitting more community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees. The current pilot expires in 2023.
Heiman recommends the state allow the participating colleges to enroll new students until the final LAO report is completed a year early in 2021.
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