Steve Crawford recently graduated from the mortuary science program at Cypress College in Orange County. If he passes state tests, he could get a job in a coroner's office, which was once his dream job.
But Crawford has decided he might want to work as a funeral director or operate his own business, which would be easier if he had a four-year degree. He would have to move, however, since no California schools offer baccalaureate mortuary degrees.
"I'd rather stay here," said Crawford, 28. "But I want to see how far I can go in this field, too, and if that means more school, I have to consider" leaving the state.
Under a new state law, Crawford might be able to stay put and get a four-year degree at Cypress. The community college is one of 36 campuses and districts that have said they plan to apply for an opportunity to offer four-year degrees. It would be the first time community colleges in California would be eligible to offer more than associate's degrees.
Schools that are selected could provide thousands of workers to the state in areas that need more employees, including the healthcare and automotive industries.
Students also would be given a chance to get a higher degree while paying lower, community college fees. A four-year degree at a community college would cost about $10,000 in tuition, roughly half the cost of attending a Cal State campus, according to estimates. Backers say it has the potential to be a major advance for California higher education, offering more class opportunities at lower costs.
"I don't see why it shouldn't be a game changer," said state Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego) who sponsored the legislation authorizing the program.
The problem is there are only 15 slots available in the pilot program. "So somebody's going to be disappointed," Block said.
Most applicants proposed offering technical programs that would prepare graduates for high-paying jobs nearby. The San Jose-Evergreen Community College District and Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier want to offer a degree in automotive technology; at least three districts intend to expand their respiratory-care programs.
Community colleges cannot offer four-year degrees in nursing or other programs that other state schools in the area already do.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Pamela Luster, president of San Diego Mesa College.
State officials will choose the successful programs by mid-January. The programs will begin no later than 2017.
Luster and other college officials have been working for nine months to develop a health information management degree for students who want to work with electronic health records and technology issues at hospitals.
Mesa College employees went to regional meetings of educators to make sure other colleges weren't planning to offer something similar and made sure that local employers had a need for more workers in the field.
"There was no path of least resistance, believe me," Luster said.
Cypress won't have to worry about overlap, because it offers the only mortuary science program south of Sacramento; American River College has a two-year funeral-service degree.
The campus "will definitely be unique," said Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Assn.
The Cypress mortuary program usually has about 100 students a year. There are three full-time faculty and four adjunct professors and, if the campus gets in the pilot program, Cypress administrators plan to hire one or two more professors. About 30 more students could enroll in the first year.
The current mortuary-science degree at Cypress takes two years to complete, and all students have to take courses ranging from embalming — where they learn how to drain blood and other fluids from human cadavers — to classes on makeup for different skin tones.
Students also create clay death masks, often using photographs of celebrities as models.
Crawford created a good facsimile of actor Willem Dafoe. "He has distinct features, so I thought it would be easier," he said.
Most students said they had been fascinated by death from an early age and didn't have any trouble being around human remains. Many are already working in the funeral industry or said they view the job as a kind of public service.
When he decided to apply to Cypress, Crawford was working for a Downey funeral parlor, picking up the bodies of those who had died at home. "It was just a job, a way to get a foot in the door" in a coroner's office.
But early one morning, Crawford arrived to transport the body of a family matriarch. "I was half asleep, thinking, 'Let's just do this,' but they were so grateful to see me and to know someone was there to help them that it changed the way I thought," Crawford said.
Esther Renteria said that she attended the funeral of several family members when she was young and that her children had lost friends at a young age. She said she saw funerals as "a chance to give the family closure, and I like the concept of someone resting in peace."
Renteria began working at a funeral home, where she greets mourners during funerals and helps the director with tasks but, she said, she wanted to do more and applied to Cypress over her family's objections.
"They said, 'Don't do it, don't do it; it will be too sad,'" she said. "But I really think it's my dream job."
A baccalaureate could propel such people as Renteria up the corporate ladder or prepare them to open their own businesses, said Glenn Bower, head of the Cypress mortuary-science program. "For anything on a managerial level, you do need a bachelor's degree," Bower said.
Bower said many students choose to leave the state to pursue more education. Only a handful of campuses offer four-year degrees and are clustered in the Midwest and East Coast, where some states require some funeral workers to have baccalaureate diplomas.
Bower said many would like to explore further education, but family commitments make uprooting difficult and online courses are expensive.
As Renteria, a married 47-year-old with children, put it: "I would love to move and get a four-year-degree. I'd just have to get divorced first."