Bill allowing community colleges to grant 4-year bachelor’s degrees goes to governor

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A bill that would allow California’s community colleges to grant four-year bachelor’s degrees now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature after passing through the state Senate.

The legislation, Senate Bill 850, would approve a pilot program at up to 15 community-college districts to grant bachelor’s degrees not offered by the University of California or California State University. California’s 112 community college campuses can currently offer only certificates, diplomas and two-year associate’s degrees.

With more than 2.1 million students, California’s community college system is the largest system of higher education in the United States. If approved, the program would commence by the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year.

The participating colleges, which have not been determined, would each provide one bachelor’s degree not offered by any CSU or UC campus, such as law enforcement, dental hygiene or automotive repair.

“The senator looks at the bill as a jobs bill,” said Maria Lopez, a spokesperson for Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, who authored the bill. “He wants to make sure that programs offered … will help assure jobs for students.”

The bill cites that “California needs to produce one million more baccalaureate degrees … to remain economically competitive in the coming decades.” Twenty-one states, including Florida and Hawaii, already allow community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees.

SB 850 has been criticized for disrupting California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, which delegates responsibilities among the UC, CSU and community college systems. The plan, implemented in 1960, states community colleges’ primary mission is to offer two years of undergraduate education.

“That plan helped lay a very important and much-necessary foundation for higher education,” said Lizette Navarette, a legislative advocate for the Community College League of California. “But we need an innovative approach to meeting the need for more bachelor’s degrees.”

Baccalaureate programs offered by community colleges would cost about $10,000 in total, according to Vince Stewart, vice chancellor of governmental relations at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. A baccalaureate degree at a CSU school might cost more than $20,000.

Robert Shireman, the director of California Competes, a nonpartisan higher-education-policy think tank, said the program is a “worthwhile experiment” but might cause community colleges to “chase prestige” by focusing on increasing bachelor’s degree offerings at the expense of existing programs.

“That detracts from their underlying mission, especially serving the disadvantaged in their communities,” Shireman said.

He added that the program might take away from community colleges’ roles in developmental education, English-language education for immigrants and providing transfer students for CSU and UC campuses.

“The notion is that (community) colleges that participate can deliver on our core mission and deliver a baccalaureate degree to students who need it — in disciplines where there’s workforce need — at an affordable price,” Stewart said.

Sahil Chinoy covers higher education. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sahilchinoy_dc.