4-Year Bachelor Degrees Coming to a Community College near You

One would assume that innovation in the post-secondary world would be boiling and seething at the high priced research universities, but while it certainly isn’t neglected there—Brown customizes majors and Northeastern mixes work and classroom in its coop program—the community colleges are on a mission to deliver needed educational programs at affordable prices.

About a year ago Coastline Community College of Fountain Valley began piloting four year degree programs through its Learning 1st program. Now a student who is comfortably ensconced at Coastline, won’t have to go through the disruptive process of transferring to one of the Cal States, figure out the logistics, wrestle with registration, suffer the delays of impacted classes and juggle her busy schedule by the semester.

Learning 1st offers a BA or BS in Psychology through Penn State, a BBA in management from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a BS in Computer Science from University of Illinois, Springfield. Should a student enroll in Learning 1st, the general education portion of the degree is taken at Coastline, and then the student takes the balance of the degree, on-line, through one of the aforementioned member institutions.

To get a sense of the affordability of the program, annual in-state tuition at a UC is currently over $13,000, at Cal State around $9,300, and at Learning 1st Program $7,400.  Moreover, the retention and graduation rates for Learning 1st Partner Institutions is better than double that of national for profit universities  

While Learning 1st’s on-line alternative is exciting, last Sunday Governor Jerry Brown just signed SB 850 that will allow 15 community districts to implement pilot 4-year bachelor degree programs mainly in vocational fields, such as dental hygiene or data management, in which associates degrees were formerly accepted by employers, who now are looking for a bachelor’s when hiring.

These pilot programs should be ready to launch by the fall semester of 2015 and will be implemented no later than the 2017-2018 academic year, with their efficacy measured and determined by July 2022: the program currently has a sunset for 2022-2023.

Just as the Learning 1st presents value to community college students, so too does this SB850 program. The 4-year degree programs would cost around $10,000 over the four years, about $84 per unit as compared to the 4-year cost of a CSU degree, $22,000, or UC, $52,000.

Though the state of California should be congratulated for rolling out this much needed educational offering, it is quite far behind other states in doing so. Community Colleges in 21 other states already offer 4-year degrees. Florida is the most aggressive with 23 of 25 of its community colleges offering bachelor’s in fields ranging from nursing (a major extremely impacted in most California public schools), business, and history. One of these community colleges, St. Petersburg College, now offers 25 baccalaureate degrees.

This encroachment into the 4-year-degree realm of Cal States and UCs, however, brings political responses, particularly if the 4-year degree programs are perceived as competing with those in existence at the UCs or CSUs. According to the Press Telegram’s 30 September 2014 issue, the Superintendent of Long Beach City College District, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, will not participate in the program. He believes LBCC’s role is to award certificates and associates degrees, and assist students in transferring to Cal State Dominguez Hills and Long Beach.       

Undoubtedly, the traditional role of the community college is needed and important. Yet, if a community college has the capability to expand a specialty subject, such as construction technology or automotive technology into a full-fledged bachelor’s degree, which have no equivalent in the existing four-year public schools, why not? Even in areas, such as nursing or other health care fields, which are severely impacted, expansion among the community colleges seems to make sense.

Politics aside, the more efficiently community colleges become at training and placing capable students/workers in rewarding positions, the more we all benefit. It’s good when educational institutions are allowed to innovate and deliver value. You don’t even need a BBA in management from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst to figure that out.