The community college baccalaureate program is on the precipice of expanding in California.
Program proponents say the more advanced bachelor’s degree offerings by colleges that typically offer associate degrees are key to training California’s workforce and expanding degrees among the underserved students of California’s community college system.
“It’s the equity answer to baccalaureate attainment,” said Kern Community College District Chancellor Sonya Christian.
Currently, 15 of the state’s 116 community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in fields such as industrial automation, dental hygiene and bio-manufacturing through a pilot program launched in 2014.
That program became permanent through Assembly Bill 927, a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October. It also allows the state’s community college system to expand by 30 new bachelor’s degree programs annually.
California is one of 23 states in the nation that offers community college baccalaureate degrees, according to a 2020 report by Community College Research Initiatives at the University of Washington.
Both the pilot and expanded programs require community colleges to demonstrate that the degree offered satisfies an unmet industry need and that the program is not already offered by local universities.
Bakersfield College’s degree in industrial automation is one that a California Legislative Analyst’s Office report noted filled hard-to-staff positions for employers and that its expansion as a bachelor’s degree offered better preparation.
Liz Rozell, the director of Kern County’s Valley Strong Energy Research Institute, said the degree in industrial automation helped to address one of the main pitfalls of workforce training. It is often narrowly focused on new technology that is ever-changing.
“Our technology is outpacing our training,” Rozell said. “We’re not focused on teaching our students agility. They need the ability to adapt to emerging technology.”
Christian said that these degrees could be the answer to the technological issues that communities are facing in the future, such as transportation and energy.
Educators and researchers discussed what they’ve learned through the pilot program at a conference hosted by the Kern Community College District and California Community Colleges on workforce development called “Good Jobs with Equity: The Future Workforce.”
Jim DeKloe, a professor of biological sciences and biotechnology at Solano Community College, said many of his students in the program believed that they couldn’t afford a bachelor’s degree. The sticker shock of a University of California education is off-putting to them. Community colleges can offer a baccalaureate for $10,500, while California State University costs around $6,000 per year and the University of California more than $13,000 per year.
Biotechnology has incredible potential for growth as an industry in communities and for its workers, according to DeKloe.
Initially, he noticed some students in biomanufacturing weren’t transferring to receive their degrees. But he said he knows students who never thought they would get a degree who are moving on to graduate school, thanks to the program.
“It’s a career pathway where they can move up, move up, move up,” he said. Getting a bachelor’s degree at the community college also eliminates the need for students to transfer to CSU or UC, which has become challenging with only 4 in 10 transferring after six years in 2012-13.
Solano Community College and MiraCosta College partnered for their degree in biomanufacturing, and DeKloe said he is working on expanding the program to other community colleges in California.
Students are telling colleges that they need these affordable, accessible programs, according to Tina Recalde, the dean of health science and public service at San Diego Mesa College.
These degree programs are an important tool to center racial equity in higher education, according to Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, the associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
She is researching community college baccalaureate degree programs as a professor of education at UCLA. She said her research shows that students are embracing the programs, and they are getting jobs with good wages when they finish.
“We have to advocate for the most underserved students in our system,” Rios-Aguilar said.
The report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office in 2020 said the pilot program’s greatest strength was offering a low-cost bachelor’s degree. In a survey, 51% of participants said they never would have even pursued a bachelor’s degree if the community college they were attending had not offered it.
However, evidence was mixed for the degrees as workforce development programs: 7 of 15 programs were successful on this front, the report concluded.
Rios-Aguilar said there’s room to do better but that the research points toward the importance of embracing the programs in California’s largest higher education system. She encouraged colleges to pay attention, continuously assess the programs and form learning communities.
She added that California’s community colleges are at a disadvantage compared with other states that have easy access to labor market data, such as Washington State. She encouraged the state to provide this data. In the meantime, she encouraged communities to push for that data from employers.
The role of community colleges in workforce development is especially pressing, said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges. Community colleges are focused on a student population that is especially eager to get into the workforce and begin earning. The question of how best to serve those students feels especially urgent in the wake of the pandemic, he said.
“There should be a little bit of fear in our guts about what is going to happen right now,” Oakley said. “We have what seems like a world falling apart at the seams, an economy trying to sort itself out, and there are workers really struggling.”