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In California alone there are nearly 500 degree-granting higher education institutions, 112 of which are two-year, community colleges. Standing out in this immensely competitive marketplace can be challenging, especially for these two-year colleges that have been traditionally limited in the credentials they could offer. But no longer. A recently announced pilot project is giving 15 California community colleges the opportunity to offer bachelor degree programs in high-demand, career-focused fields. In this interview, the first of two parts, Erlinda Martinez shares her thoughts on the importance of offering these credentials at two-year institutions and discusses the competitive advantage it provides colleges.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for two-year colleges to be allowed to offer bachelor degree programs?
Erlinda Martinez (EM): The most compelling reason for community colleges to be allowed to offer bachelor degree programs is economic. California will fall about 1.1 million college graduates short of economic demand by 2030, if current trends persist. In addition, the number of highly educated workers from elsewhere is unlikely to be large enough to bridge this workforce skills gap according to a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study. The PPIC forecasts that 38 percent of all jobs in California will require at least a bachelor’s degree in 2030. But only about 33 percent of workers will have these degrees—a small increase since 2013, when 32 percent of California workers had them.
Nationwide, the situation is not any better. According to a Georgetown University Public Policy Institute study, without major changes to the U.S. postsecondary education system, the economy will fall short by five million workers with postsecondary degrees by 2020.
Two demographic trends are also working against increases in the number of college graduates in the workforce. First, baby boomers, a well educated group, are reaching retirement age and are beginning to leave the workforce in large numbers. Second, the face of our nation is changing and is shifting toward greater numbers of Latinos with historically lower levels of educational attainment.
Community colleges across the county, including Santa Ana College, are putting resources and personnel behind closing the equity achievement gap. Our college student equity plan focuses on increasing access, course completion, ESL and basic skills completion, degrees, certificates and transfer for all students.
With overcrowding at four-year institutions, community colleges can play an important role by producing more graduates with bachelor’s degrees, meeting local, state and national workforce demands. Community colleges are a logical choice to help boost the number of workers with bachelor’s degrees because we are often the first choice for under-represented students.
We are in their neighborhood and we are more economically accessible. Our doors are open to all students and enrollment is available at a low or no cost. From a public policy perspective, we are a win-win proposition; students pay less to enroll in community colleges and taxpayers pay less to support our institutions.
Boosting the number of bachelor’s degrees in the hands of under-represented students is essential to the economic well being of our region, state and country. And community colleges have proven ourselves to be agile and more able to respond to shifting workforce needs.
Evo: How would you respond to the critique that offering bachelor degree programs at two-year colleges works against the mission of the college and, in California, the Master Plan?
EM: Allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees is very much in line with our mission. In addition to the important mission of preparing students for transfer to baccalaureate-granting institutions, community colleges have historically trained students to be workforce ready. That’s why many of our two-year degrees and certificates are in career technical education fields, including auto technology, welding, fashion design, criminal justice, fire technology, occupational therapy assistant, speech-language technology assistant, pharmacy technology and more.
Santa Ana College has put programs into place to support student success and move our students as quickly as possible through their coursework into the workforce to fill industry needs. To ensure that our degree and certificate programs remain aligned with industry standards, we forge relationships with local businesses whose representatives serve on advisory boards for each discipline. Through this business-college partnership, we are poised to respond to industry changes to ensure that our graduates’ skills are marketable.
A primary mission of the California Community Colleges is to advance California’s economic growth and global competitiveness through education, training and services that contribute to continuous workforce improvement.
Since a major tenet of our mission is ensuring access to higher education for all students, providing a less expensive option to earning a bachelor’s degree just makes sense. Students will pay lower enrollment fees in community college bachelor’s degree programs making these programs more affordable, manageable and accessible to more students, especially those under-represented students—the very demographic that must earn increased numbers of bachelor’s degrees to ensure the vitality of our economy for years to come.
Evo: How does offering a bachelor degree program help SAC stand out as an academic destination for students in and around its service area?
EM: Santa Ana College’s selection to be part of the pilot program for California community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees says a lot. It is especially gratifying to step up to this challenge in 2015, the college’s centennial year. We are also enthusiastic about launching a bachelor’s degree program with our OTA program, a program that is held in high esteem locally, regionally and nationally.
For Santa Ana College to be among the first California community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in high-need fields as part of this pilot program meant to boost the economy and help students avoid costly for-profit programs is nothing short of spectacular. It tells prospective students that SAC is a higher education destination that will prepare them for in-demand careers with a solid future and that the college is respected statewide for its academic excellence.
By offering a more affordable baccalaureate program, SAC is responding to the economic pressures our students face. As with our other programs, students will have access to flexible class schedules with many classes offered at night or online so that working adults can juggle college enrollment with job and family responsibilities. Students will also have access to financial aid and scholarships.
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Author Perspective: Administrator, Community College
These are some pretty convincing numbers, and with the aforementioned overcrowding at so many institutions, it sometimes seems to be at odds with the impression of the state of higher education currently. Perhaps this is where our focus should really be, educating as many people as possible for the lowest cost and highest return, rather than the proliferation of four-year colleges struggling to differentiate themselves from one another.
The idea of making higher education more accessible to underrepresented demographics is definitely a worthy goal, but I’m a little wary of the way we talk about those students like nothing more than a demographic whose labour we need to push the economy forward. Regardless of the state of the economy, creating bachelor’s programs that are accessible to Latinx or Hispanic students in our communities should be a goal unto itself.
This also says something about the accessibility of four-year colleges, if rather than work to make those more affordable and accessible, we just create a new class of bachelor’s degree. Those running the 400+ four-year institutions in California need to look at what they are doing to close these skills gaps and serve underrepresented students.