California's community college system is considering a controversial effort to offer four-year degrees, a move designed to boost the number of students who graduate and are more prepared for the workforce.
The change would require legislation authorizing junior colleges to grant baccalaureate degrees. Colleges would also need to seek additional accreditation as baccalaureate-granting institutions. Supporters argue that it would help to address shortages in workforce training and benefit students in rural areas without access to a four-year university.
But critics, including some community college faculty and officials from four-year universities, counter that it would represent a dramatic shift from the traditional mission of the two-year system. They point to the state's 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which designated community colleges as open-for-all campuses for career and transfer students. The four-year universities were to focus on research and higher degrees.
A 16-member panel, appointed by community colleges Chancellor Brice Harris, is weighing the move. The group includes administrators, faculty, a student, a college trustee and representatives from the University of California and California State University systems.
If adopted, California would follow a growing trend: As many as 21 states have approved baccalaureate programs at community colleges, most recently Michigan, which in December granted junior colleges authority to offer four-year degrees in a limited number of fields such as maritime technology and culinary arts.
But most of the efforts have met fierce political resistance from universities and private colleges concerned about competition for students as well as duplication of programs. The battle in California, with 112 community colleges and 2.4 million students, is likely to be just as intense.
A 2005 state law authorized partnerships between two- and four-year schools to offer baccalaureate degrees on community college campuses. College of the Canyons, for example, partners with Cal State campuses in Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Northridge, as well as private institutions such as the University of La Verne and Brandman University that offer bachelor's degrees in liberal arts, engineering and other majors on its Santa Clarita campus.
But legislative attempts to establish stand-alone bachelor's programs have failed.
"The intent … is to look at the issue from all sides," said Barry Russell, the community colleges' vice chancellor for academic affairs. "We have people in the group who think it's a peachy keen idea and we should start doing it next week. But also people who are wary and looking at the implications of changing the mission of community colleges."
The panel is scheduled to present a report to Harris and the Board of Governors by year's end.
Major questions include the costs of baccalaureate programs and how high fees would be set. Colleges would also probably need to increase faculty with the credentials, such as a doctorate degree, needed to teach upper division course work as well as upgrade libraries and laboratories.
Many wonder how a system forced by budget cuts to slash classes and turn away more than 500,000 traditional students would handle the increased demands imposed by baccalaureate programs.
Faculty, too, want more of those questions answered, said Beth Smith, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges.
"We want to continue to address our original mission as well as we can before we tackle new ways to serve students," said Smith, a math professor at Grossmont College in El Cajon. "It doesn't mean there aren't important reasons to investigate this topic. It's a challenge for us because the situation of our students has changed, particularly in the case of career technical programs and nursing, where an associate's degree used to lead to employment, and that's no longer the case."
Cal State and UC officials said maintaining their respective roles is the best way to serve students.
"Cal State, UC and community colleges work together on a regular basis and we'd like to continue that," said Christine Mallon, assistant vice chancellor for academic programs and faculty development at Cal State and a member of the panel. "We should continue making use of the infrastructure, faculty and resources and continue finishing degrees started in community colleges."
Education experts said it's a tricky balance but that community college bachelor's programs can help fill needs specific to local communities such as nursing, automotive and biotechnology.
"Provided they are offering bachelor's degrees that other public institutions aren't offering, particularly in applied technical areas," said Davis Jenkins, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at
"In general it doesn't depart from the community college mission because they were designed to meet community needs."
Block proposed a pilot program in 2011 authorizing the Grossmont-Cuyamaca and San Mateo County community districts to offer selective bachelor's degrees where workforce needs are high. Students would pay regular community college fees for the first two years and a to-be-determined higher fee for the upper division courses. He pulled that proposal because of budget concerns.
"Times have changed and we have a small surplus," Block said. "As the education budget chair in the Senate, I think I can find pools of funding. The need has grown so great that private sector employers now have said they may be willing to offer money for start-up. It gives me hopes that a similar bill this time would be successful."
Such legislation would be a boost to San Diego City College nursing students, said Debbie Berg, associate dean and director of nursing programs. Most of the 63 students who graduated as registered nurses in May want to pursue a bachelor's degree, she said.
The closest institution, San Diego State, enrolled 42 registered nurses in its bachelor's degree program this fall, with 14 from City College, Berg said. Students are trying to enroll in other Cal State campuses, but most have too few spaces, she said. Meanwhile, tuition to complete a nursing degree at private colleges can run $50,000 to $90,000.
Jonathan Bills was one of the lucking 14 who got a spot at San Diego State. After graduating in May, he encountered the problem faced by many of his classmates: An associate's degree isn't enough for a profession that increasingly demands a bachelor's.
"If I had a choice," he said, "it would be no other decision than to stay and get the bachelor's" at San Diego City College.