24 states now allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees

Arizona this week became the latest state to give community colleges the green light to offer four-year degrees. Twenty-four states now permit bachelor’s degree programs at community colleges, and others have expressed interest in the model’s potential to increase college access and help meet local workforce needs, Inside Higher Ed reports.

AZ bill prioritizes labor needs, affordability

Under Arizona’s legislation—which passed the state Senate 24-to-6 and was signed this week by Governor Doug Ducey—community colleges must ensure that their baccalaureate programs reflect local labor needs and do not duplicate existing offerings at state universities.

For example, the 10-campus Maricopa Community College said it is considering offering a degree in respiratory therapy among its new bachelor’s programs. Arizona hospitals increasingly require respiratory therapists to have a four-year degree, but none of the state’s universities offer that training.

The new bill also requires community college to cap the price of baccalaureate-level courses at 150 percent or less than the cost of their associate-level courses. At Maricopa, that would work out to around $3,000 per semester, maximum, for a bachelor’s degree program—around one-fourth to half of the cost of attending a state university, according to Steven R. Gonzales, interim chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District.

“With students leaving higher education with mounds of student debt, this would be an opportunity to have access to high-quality, affordable [education] and hopefully leave community college with little to no debt and a bachelor’s degree in hand,” Gonzales told Inside Higher Ed.

Some see competition, others see alternative to transfer hurdles

While proponents of community college baccalaureate pathways say the offerings increase affordability and create avenues to four-year degrees for underrepresented populations and far-flung communities, critics say the model could undermine public universities.

In Arizona, four-year institutions expressed concern that the new legislation does not require community colleges to collaborate with state universities in determining their baccalaureate offerings. Some two-year institutions such as Pima Community College have been vocal about their intent to continue their strong partnerships with state universities.

Experts say that competition is unlikely, given that community colleges and four-year universities tend to attract different types of students. California, for instance, says it has not experienced any detrimental competition since it launched a 15-school community college baccalaureate pilot program in 2014.

Similar programs in Washington state and Florida have shown that community college bachelor’s degree programs tend to attract adult learners, working learners, student parents, low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color.

“The students who enroll in these programs are students who most likely would not have attended a four-year baccalaureate program,” said Debra Bragg, a fellow at the think tank New America. Rather, they are students who need to stay local or students for whom transferring would have proven too burdensome.

According to the Community College Research Center, most community college students say they want to earn a bachelor’s degree, but less than 20 percent actually do so within six years. “It’s those students that we’re worried about,” Bragg said. “Transfer is the hurdle that we create to get the baccalaureate, and unfortunately we do that to the students that have the least resources and are often the least prepared to make those transitions in their college-going experience.”

More states coming on board?

Angela Kersenbrock, president of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, says she expects to see more states start allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in the coming years, as they work to meet attainment goals and recover from the pandemic.

“I’m hopeful we’ll have another big jump this year and next year,” she told EdSurge. “We’re getting a lot of calls from legislators wanting to talk about it. Everybody is very concerned about higher ed equity.”

Gonzales expressed similar hopes to Inside Higher Ed. “To suddenly say that everyone has an opportunity to pursue a four-year baccalaureate through an open-door institution should be something that should be celebrated across our state, across our country,” he said.

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