Increase access to degrees

STATE AFFAIRS: Allowing certain community college districts to offer four-year degrees makes higher education more accessible and affordable

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Last month, the state Legislature passed a bill that would approve a pilot program allowing 15 community college districts in California to each offer one bachelor degree program not offered by any CSU or UC campus. Senate Bill 850 hopes to meet California’s rising need for bachelor’s degrees to remain economically competitive in the next few decades. Despite the worry that this bill might detract from community colleges’ primary mission, we ask Gov. Jerry Brown to sign SB 850, as it will benefit students in California by creating programs that offer more access to four-year degrees.

By granting some community colleges the ability to offer four-year degrees, SB 850 diverges from California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, which specified the roles and responsibilities of the University of California, California State University and community college systems. This plan, implemented in 1960, defined community colleges’ role as offering two years of undergraduate education, while CSU and UC campuses reserved the right to offer four-year degrees. But changes such as a decline in state funding, shifting demographics and the tech revolution have led to a need for changes in the Master Plan.

Yet there is justifiable concern that this program will detract from community colleges’ primary mission. Some California community colleges are currently suffering due to budget cuts; hundreds of thousands of students have lost access to education due to a shortage in classes and instructors. We should be wary of bills that create new programs that lack a stable funding model. Additionally, taking on the mission of offering bachelor’s degrees may come at the expense of existing programs such as English-language education for immigrants and developmental education. It also poses the danger of assuming too much of administrators’ time and effort.

Many of these issues could be mitigated by carefully selecting the community college districts involved in the pilot program. By choosing schools that are already meeting their students’ needs, we avoid endangering community colleges’ current programs while simultaneously providing students with the opportunity of gaining affordable four-year degrees not offered at CSU or UC campuses.

Overall, the bill’s goals to expand community college programs to include four-year degrees should not damage their existing programs. Similarly, the CSU system began to offer a doctorate of education degree in 2006 — a field the UC system was responsible for under the Master Plan. But this change allowed the state’s higher education system to address a functional need for these degrees.

SB 850 provides an outlet for those who wish to acquire higher education but do not find the UC or CSU system affordable or accessible. As long as qualified and efficient community colleges are selected for this program, the implementation of SB 850 would not get in the way of existing community college programs and would provide a new and viable way to help students.

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