When 15 California community colleges received preliminary approval to offer four-year degrees recently, officials touted the move as a way to provide highly trained workers at a lower cost, especially for technical jobs in fields such as medicine and dentistry.
But will employers know what to make of the new bachelor's degrees when they start appearing on resumes in several years? Would a hospital prefer to hire a new health information manager from, say, Loma Linda University, which has offered that degree for nearly 50 years, or from San Diego Mesa College, which has never offered a four-year degree of any kind?
Community college leaders say they think companies will easily adjust. Pamela Luster, Mesa College's president, met with local businesses to gauge their interest in graduates with bachelor's degrees from a community college and "it was not an issue at all," Luster said. "They said there's a huge need for people in the field."
Mesa College already has a successful two-year health information program and "they know what we can do," Luster said.
Others agreed, pointing out that the community colleges are not allowed to offer degrees that are already in place at other nearby state, four-year schools. "For the most part, the real competition is in the private, for-profit sector," said state Sen. Marty Block, (D-San Diego), who wrote the bill creating the program.
"In those cases, I think the community college degrees will be the leading degree in the field," he said.
State officials will be monitoring the pilot program to see how many students graduate along with what types of jobs they get and the salaries they earn. The program is only intended to last until 2023, although it could be renewed by lawmakers depending on results.
"We'll see what the metrics say," Block said.
By keeping tabs on graduates' salaries, California officials will join a growing number of policymakers and students who are trying to calculate what a degree is worth. Instead of seeing college as a place to develop a broad band of knowledge or grow personally, many students want to know what return they will get on their investment of time and money, that is, what kind of career and salary they will have.
"Students [once] talked about learning and exploring and self-actualization,' said Constance Carroll, the chancellor of the San Diego Community College District. "There weren't the hard-edged considerations there are today."
The new community college four-year degrees might appeal to students who are looking for a deal that is close to home, especially since they will pay only about $10,000 annually in tuition, roughly half the cost of attending a Cal State campus, according to estimates.
Some researchers have found there are advantages to graduating from schools with bigger names.
Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University, conducted a study that found students who went to elite schools outearned their peers who did not.
Hersch drew her conclusions by examining data from the 2003 and 2010 National Survey of College Graduates, which contain self-reported data about salaries from nearly 178,000 graduates from a range of four-year schools.
Hersch found that undergraduate degrees seem to influence salaries, even if students go on to professional or graduate programs. It was unclear why the wage gap occurs.
Men who earned their bachelor's degrees from very selective schools and then went on to elite graduate schools such as Harvard University made nearly $185,000 in 2013 dollars, about $50,000 more than those who received their undergraduate degrees from less selective schools and then went on to elite campuses, according to the study.
Women graduate students who also went to selective undergraduate schools then attended similar graduate schools made about $116,000 a year, nearly $36,000 more than their peers who went to less elite undergraduate schools.
Hersch's study didn't focus on community colleges but she said she wouldn't be surprised if employers would have more questions about degrees from community colleges, especially at first.
"Part of the reason the name brands are meaningful is you have years of observation of the students they're turning out," Hersch said.
Hersch said she found her results depressing, especially since she got her bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida before getting her doctorate at Northwestern University.
"I really believe you can get a great education at a lot of places," she said. "It takes time for the market to adjust."