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Three Keys to Launching Bachelor’s Programs at a Community College

The EvoLLLution | Three Keys to Launching Bachelor’s Programs at a Community College
For a community college, launching a bachelor’s program means convincing legislators, local employers and the university across the street that it’s in their best interest.

Every spring graduation season rolls around again. Students across the country celebrate the end of their journey to a bachelor’s degree. Family and friends gather to hear their loved one’s name called and watch the new graduate proudly walk across the stage to receive their diploma and enter a new chapter of their lives and careers.

Research suggests these bachelor’s graduates are more likely than peers with less education to vote, volunteer, and report being in good health. They’ll probably earn more over the course of their working lives and are more likely to be employed, even during tough economic times. In addition to all these benefits, they’re simply more likely to report being happy with their lives. There’s much to celebrate.

While the idea of a college graduation may evoke images of families lining the stadium at a land grant university or applauding from lawn chairs in the quad at a picturesque liberal arts college, with each year that passes, more and more bachelor’s degrees are actually awarded at a community college.

Bachelor’s programs at community colleges are growing in popularity with good reason. For about 16% of American adults, the only broad-access institution within 25 miles is a single community college. Community colleges welcome higher shares of low-income students and students of color than four-year institutions, groups which are underrepresented among the those with bachelor’s degrees. For the geographic and financial access they already provide, community colleges can—and should—be part of strategy to make bachelor’s degrees more accessible.

In March, Wyoming became the 25th state to authorize community colleges to confer at least some bachelor’s degrees. So, if you’re in one of the half of states with a community college baccalaureate program in place, congratulations!

The next phase is getting new bachelor’s programs at community colleges off the ground. Here are three aspects of the program proposal and launch process that community college leaders may want to keep in mind as they move forward:

1. Navigating the Program Approval Process

 To start a new baccalaureate degree, community colleges need to prove they have the capacity to run the program. Most existing state policies require community colleges to demonstrate labor market demand for these bachelor’s programs, as well as student demand. The employers that will benefit from new bachelor’s programs can be critical allies in lobbying for program approval. They can commit to employ new graduates and show how graduates would contribute to the local economy.

2. Financing and Sustaining New Programs

Community colleges will need to demonstrate how they plan to meet substantial program startup costs and sustain the program as long as it continues to provide local labor market value. Upper division classes may be more expensive for institutions to run than lower division courses. New expenses could range from hiring additional faculty with terminal degrees to purchasing new equipment to increasing library holdings to meet accreditors’ requirements of bachelor’s-conferring institutions. Community colleges should leverage labor market impact analyses to demonstrate why baccalaureate program would be a worthwhile investment of additional state funds. They should also make clear whether they will use differentiated lower- and upper-division tuition rates to meet program costs. Additionally, since local employers will benefit from bachelor’s programs tailored to the skills needed to succeed on the job, they may be willing to offer equipment, startup resources and curriculum development support. 

3. Working Collaboratively with Universities and Four-Year Colleges

Four-year institutions may be—to put it gently—less than enthused about the possibility of a new bachelor’s program or two across town at the community college. But higher education institutions can work together to ensure that there are enough teachers in local schools and respiratory therapists in local clinics and hospitals. Universities may not always feel like it, but they’re on the same team as community colleges in raising bachelor’s degree attainment for the sake of the community. Using data to demonstrate how baccalaureate programs at the community college can complement—not replace—offerings at other local institutions will be important to encouraging sustained collaborative relationships among institutions.

Not everyone will want, pursue or complete a bachelor’s degree. But for too many Americans right now, it’s not a question of whether a bachelor’s degree is something they want. Rather, it’s a question of feasibility. Leveraging the strengths of community colleges—lower cost, small classes, strong teaching and community roots—to remove structural barriers to the bachelor’s degree is one step toward empowering more Americans to join in the graduation festivities and look forward to all the ways a baccalaureate education can enhance their lives.

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