Community colleges play a vital role in Colorado's higher education system. They not only prepare workforce-ready graduates with two-year associates degrees and various training and licensure programs, but also provide a foundation for students who transfer to four-year universities. I have long been a supporter of community colleges, from my time chairing the Colorado Commission on Higher Education in the 1980s to my current role at the University of Colorado.
Our university has instituted many collaborative programs with community colleges as well as transfer agreements that smooth the transition from two-year colleges to four-year universities. Yet I joined many of my higher education colleagues recently in opposing the proposal before the Colorado General Assembly to expand community colleges' scope with the ability to offer four-year degrees. Our reasons for doing so had nothing to do with protecting turf or competition and everything to do with good public policy.
The House Education Committee killed the bill, but the public policy question remains. Is there a compelling need to expand the mission of community colleges, particularly given a higher education system in our state that is 48th nationally in state funding per student? Additionally, a study by the University of Denver, along with the national Race to the Bottom report (and our internal analysis) show Colorado will be the first state to run out of funding for higher education, likely within a decade. The reality is that four-year programs cost more to offer than two-year programs. The state's Department of Higher Education worked to get its arms around issues of access and programming last year with its comprehensive master planning process. Interestingly, the need for four-year degrees at community colleges did not come up then.
Supporters of the concept say it is an issue of access, that some students in rural areas cannot leave home to study at a four-year institution. While that certainly may be true in limited cases, nearly 90 percent of community college students are in the metro Denver area or along the Front Range, in close proximity to a campus.
For those who do have access issues, we should ask if we can address them through technology and other means before creating an expansive and expensive system at a time when funding continues to head south. We have a strong track record of collaborative programs with community colleges that we can build on.