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The Pros and Cons of Awarding Bachelor’s Degrees at California Community Colleges (The Cons)

The Pros and Cons of Awarding Bachelor's Degrees at California Community Colleges (The Cons)
While in principle the idea to offer bachelor’s degrees at community colleges is promising, more details must be threshed out before jumping in with both feet.
In the first article of this series, Beth Smith outlined the shifting tides in the higher education space and introduced California’s move to begin offering bachelor degrees at California’s community colleges. She then outlined the advantages of the concept, from fulfilling the community college mission to serve the community to creating affordable access to baccalaureate degrees to offering programs perhaps unavailable at California’s public universities. In this piece, Smith outlines the cons.

On the con side of the argument, faculty raises concerns about expanding the mission to include the awarding of bachelor’s degrees:

1. Need More Data, Feasibility Study, and Cost-Benefit Analysis

The idea of community colleges offering baccalaureate­­­­ degrees isn’t new. Other states allow community colleges this option, and California would benefit from a more in-depth examination of how students and communities are served by it. A task force sponsored by the Chancellor’s Office for the community college system spent six months investigating the issue and concluded that the idea “merits more study.” Questions have arisen about the actual problem — the lack of access to universities and the dearth of degree-holders – facing the state and whether community colleges awarding bachelor’s degrees solves it. Until further study and analysis is completed, the state should wait to make a decision about expanding the mission of the community colleges. From state funding models to labor market demand to capacity at the California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) sytstems, there remain many unanswered questions about the impact on California’s interdependent higher education systems should the mission of community colleges be expanded.

2. Applied Bachelor’s Degrees or Bachelor’s Degrees?

Among faculty, questions are emerging over what type of degree the community colleges will award. Most Californians know what a bachelor’s degree is and how requirements must be met to earn such a degree, but applied bachelor’s degrees are unknown in the state and must be defined if community colleges will be awarding them in the future. A bigger question for California is whether these two degrees would be seen as equal in the eyes of employers and other institutions of higher education should students chooses to pursue a master’s degree in the future. If an applied bachelor’s degree is seen as lesser than the better known bachelor’s degree, why would California choose to offer its citizens something with less value? If the applied bachelor’s degree comes only from community colleges, does that cheapen the courses and programs diligently developed by faculty in those colleges? California could choose to only offer full-fledged bachelor’s degrees in its community colleges, and if that is the case, then there are questions about curriculum to be answered.

3. Curriculum for Technical Degrees Versus Full-Fledged Bachelor’s Degrees

Many career technical education (CTE) associate degree programs fall into the category of possible bachelor’s degree candidates. Many of these programs require students to complete many more than the typical 60 units for an associate degree, with some such programs requiring 90-100 units. With bachelor’s degrees typically requirin 120 units, some argue that students could just add a few more classes to accumulate 120 units to earn a bachelor’s degree. However, a typical bachelor’s degree requires students to not just reach 120 units, but also to complete certain courses at the upper division (more advanced) level. If California decides to allow community colleges to expand offerings into the upper division level, allowing students to earn bachelor’s degrees, then careful review of the curriculum for the major, general education, and electives will be necessary. These degrees may not be only in CTE areas as they will include upper division coursework in areas such as humanities, social sciences, or other elective courses. CSU and UC have a right to be concerned about community colleges teaching these upper division general education and elective courses because the premise behind expanding the community college mission is that no replication or duplication of university upper division courses will exist.


Given these compelling arguments on both sides of the issue and long lists of questions to be answered, many community college and university faculty members in the state are calling for more study of the problem and potential solutions before the legislature decides to change the community college mission. The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) approved a resolution in April calling for a feasibility study of the issue of expanding the mission of community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees (see below). The legislature is considering a bill right now to grant a pilot project for a few colleges in the state over an eight-year period. A pilot project isn’t a feasibility study, nor do pilot projects provide analysis or evaluation, making the legislation problematic for some faculty across the state who don’t want to completely convert programs, hire faculty, modify curriculum and commit to students without a more informed decision by the legislature. That other states offer bachelor’s degrees at community colleges isn’t a good enough reason for California to do it. Evidence is missing, and more work within all three segments of higher education is needed to establish the problem and ways to solve it. Faculty are committed to serving our communities in the best ways possible, and additional data and study where faculty are included in the process will only help us do that job better.

To see the pertinent segment of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges recommendation regarding the feasibility of granting bachelor’s degrees in the state’s two-year institutions, please click here.

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